Where are chemical engineers headed?

Will opportunities in today's "hot" sectors , such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, among others, allow chemical engineering to continue to thrive?

By Mark Rosenzweig

The prospects for the chemical engineering profession in the United States long have been intertwined with the production of chemicals. Changing markets and stronger prospects in other sectors are weakening this link and are creating significant shifts in where and how chemical engineers will work.

Historically, a large portion of chemical engineers , 30% to 40% by some estimates , have worked for companies that produce chemicals, particularly petrochemicals and other commodity chemicals. The markets for such materials continue to grow. However, most of the increased demand comes from developing countries such as China. Production facilities in areas with lower-cost feedstocks, such as those in the Middle East, are in a better position to satisfy this growing market. It's no wonder that the United States' balance of trade in chemicals has swung into deficit for the first time ever , and exports show no sign of overtaking imports again.

Despite this, operating companies in the United States will continue to provide a substantial number of jobs for chemical engineers for the long-term, says Michael Dolan, executive vice president of ExxonMobil Chemical Co., Houston, who will become president of the company in September. Fuel, petrochemical and other commodity producers face ongoing technical challenges in increasing the efficiency of energy and raw materials usage, improving catalysts and producing more functional products, he says. This will require more understanding at the molecular level, such as basing control not on bulk properties, but molecules. Lawrence Evans, chairman of software provider Aspen Technology, Cambridge, Mass., agrees: "Improving productivity at existing plants still offers strong opportunities."

Dolan foresees a modest increase in demand for chemical engineers in fuels and petrochemicals, whereas Evans expects a slight a decline. Edward Cussler, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul, who has long followed the evolution of chemical engineering, says bluntly, "The number of chemical engineers in commodity areas will decline."

This raises a key question: Will opportunities in today's "hot" sectors , such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, among others , allow chemical engineering to continue to thrive?

Tap into pharma's promise

Changes in the pharmaceutical industry will require more chemical engineers, says Michael Thien, vice president of process R&D for Merck Research Laboratories, Rahway, N.J. "The amount of time for developing processes for manufacturing is shrinking by up to 30%," he says. In addition, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is moving toward allowing more changes in approved processes. "Less development time and more openness to change of approved processes means there's a need to be able to get a better understanding of a process faster," he says. As a result, many pharmaceutical companies that up until recently didn't employ chemical engineers in process development now are, he says. This role should expand. After all, engineers focus on the process, whereas chemists typically care more about the product than how it can be made, explains Louis Cabano, president of engineering firm Pathfinder LLC, Cherry Hill, N.J.

Alfred Center, who had been manager of engineering and construction for Caltex Petroleum and now is a senior lecturer in chemical engineering at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., sees another driver at work: Consumer concerns about drug prices ultimately will put more pressure on improving manufacturing efficiency to reduce production costs.

There's certainly potential for such improvements. Thien says that chiral compounds represent about half of today's sales and commonly are produced as racemic mixtures, which limits yield of the desired material to about 50%. "It would be much better to produce single enantiomers directly via asymmetric processing," he says, since that typically would offer 98% yields. "This could revolutionize the making of materials by providing 30% to 45% savings. He adds that engineering at the molecular level is important.

Emerging software tools allow much faster screening of potential solvents for processes. This can greatly reduce development time, Thien says, and chemical engineers can play a vital role in developing other predictive and correlative tools for process development.

Another promising area is drug delivery, Thien says, particularly in developing more convenient ways for patients to take medications. David Easson, vice president of manufacturing and process development for Epic Therapeutics, a South Norwood, Mass., subsidiary of Baxter Healthcare, agrees. "The drug delivery field is growing rapidly, with more and more opportunities to move from injectables to alternative routes, such as inhalation." This may mean that drugs have to be made via different unit operations and have different formulations. "Inhalation requires a certain size range; physical form has to be optimized to be taken by inhalation," he says. Chemical engineering challenges will center on scale-up.

Thien sees opportunities in designing tablets, including choice of fillers, compression strength and shape. This involves balancing, for instance, hardness against speed of dissolving. No fundamental method exists for this, so the company is having chemical engineers work on a correlative approach with academicians in the United Kingdom.

Easson believes there will be more of a focus on aseptic processing. Design and scale-up are chemical engineering issues, he says. "There are opportunities for chemical engineers to make more reliable sterile processes."

However, the need for chemical engineers in the pharmaceutical sector will reach saturation in a couple of years, Thien predicts.

Biotech and beyond
Chemical engineers could make great contributions in biotechnology and nanotechnology, says Nigel Hirst, owner and managing director of the engineering firm Haden Freeman, Hyde, England. He says many biotech processes would benefit from having chemical engineers involved earlier in their development.

 However, he doesn't expect biotech to be a big employer of chemical engineers, a view both Easson and Evans echo. Opportunities in materials science, such as getting better performance from composites, might offer more jobs, says William Byers, vice president and technical development manager of CH2M Hill, Corvallis, Ore., and current AIChE president. "Nanotech is getting a lot of government money and press now," he says, but expects the field won't provide many jobs in the near future.

Don't forget plastics, says Zakwan Alzein, director of chemicals and petrochemicals for Honeywell Process Solutions, Phoenix. Growing consumption of engineering plastics in pharmaceutical packaging, housing construction and automotive applications will provide opportunities. And some producers of commodity polymers will need more chemical engineers to help them shift to more functional, higher-value products.

Automation suppliers, management consultants and other service providers also will boost the number of chemical engineers in their ranks, in part to make up for capabilities that some operating companies no longer have.  Byers sees great opportunities in management consulting and marketing. "The business aspects of technical products remain as strong as they ever have been," he says.

"There's an abundance of potential areas for chemical engineers," Evans says. Chemical engineering has touched only 10% of the applications it could, Hirst emphasizes. "It has something to offer in many areas."

The lure of sustainability
Robin Batterham, chief technologist for Rio Tinto Ltd., Melbourne, Australia, and government-appointed chief scientist of the country, says chemical engineers must play a role in addressing sustainability issues. Batterham says chemical engineers cannot simply do what has led to success in the past and do it more efficiently. "Engineering has traditionally been about providing singular solutions for specific problems and often that within a single enterprise," he says. "Sustainability forces the horizons to expand from a single enterprise to the local community and, ultimately, to the global community." He stresses that chemical engineers will need to work with an ever-wider set of disciplines to integrate the basic approach of modeling and understanding at the micro level into a macro system.

Addressing the full life cycle of materials is a chemical engineering challenge, Byers says. There is a strong movement, particularly in Europe, to manage the end of life of materials and to design products with end of life specifically in mind. 
"Chemical engineers will have to develop large-scale technologies and innovative materials to allow for better closing of materials cycles," Cussler says.

Other opportunities abound
Improving productivity at existing plants still offers opportunities, Evans says. "There's no magic light switch to make firms competitive," warns Richard Morgan, vice president of consultant Celerant, Lexington, Mass. However, becoming a low-cost producer or offering differentiated products certainly is crucial. Many firms need drastic improvements that chemical engineers might be able to provide, he adds.

Chemical engineers will assume a bigger role in process control and operations optimization, says ExxonMobil's Dolan, because they understand the process, not just the control system. "Control engineers don't understand how the plant works, so chemical engineers are needed to simplify and achieve effective control," Hirst says.

 For the same reason, Honeywell's Alzein says chemical engineers are poised for greater involvement with Six Sigma and lean manufacturing concepts that now are starting to take hold at operating companies. This understanding of how a plant works and what it can do should lead to more opportunities in supply-chain management, he says. "Synchronizing manufacturing capabilities with supply-chain issues is a role for chemical engineers."
Software tools will help chemical engineers in other ways, too. Like molecular, computational fluid dynamics will become increasingly important, as will statistical tools for data mining, Evans says.

Cussler sees particular potential in product development. Most chemical engineers today are working to marginally improve commodities and mature specialty products, but the development of new high-value specialties is where the action really is, he says. For such products, speed to market is more important than production cost, Cussler explains, adding that this often means engineering skills must be applied in a different way (Table).

Increasing attention to safety and security also may call for greater input from chemical engineers. Some industry observers don't see much of a heightened role over and above the current involvement in process safety; however, others, including CH2M Hill's Byers, do. "We need to have the management, use and production of chemicals be inherently safer This requires systems analysis. That's where chemical engineers shine."

"Every aspect of energy will be under pressure and this will offer opportunities to chemical engineers," Hirst adds.

Outsourcing gets to the core
The move toward more and more outsourcing continues. The cutbacks this has spurred at operating companies have opened up more opportunities for chemical engineers with consultants, service providers and technology suppliers. However, there are fewer positions overall.

Cabano warns that some operating companies have gone too far in outsourcing. "We've seen more efforts to push the outsourcing envelope. Some companies have come dangerously close to losing core competencies. Others have cut back beyond the critical point, for instance, in operations, without knowing it They are so bare-boned that if talent is still there, which it often isn't, there's no ability to spot possible improvements," he adds.

Cussler agrees. "Outsourcing is reaching into the technical core of chemical companies. A lot of companies, instead of developing technology, are purchasing it, even letting others run the units. There's a higher degree of this than in the past. It's not just a lack of resources but a change in philosophy. This type of outsourcing is still a commodities phenomenon." He adds that a few operating companies now are starting to recognize their technical deficiencies and are hiring engineers.

The pendulum is swinging back, but cautiously, Cabano says. The numbers are modest and will never reach previous levels.  

The ranks of experienced engineers, however, are thinning. Previous rounds of downsizing have led many veterans to retire early. Now, many engineers who survived the earlier cuts are nearing retirement and will take their institutional knowledge with them, Center warns. "This hollowing out will become an issue."

"I see real problems coming down the road in the area of renovating/ upgrading or, in some cases, replacing old and obsolete plants," Hirst says. "A crisis of experience will occur within five years." AspenTech's Evans also voices concern about the loss of knowledge, but is more upbeat. "The new generation of engineers will be able to do it, though it may be a bit hairy at times," he says.

Grappling with globalization
In decades past, the building of plants overseas often benefited chemical engineers in the United States because many projects were handled by American engineering firms from their home offices. However, that has changed dramatically. Staffing at U.S. engineering and construction companies has suffered because a great deal of the detailed engineering work has been shifted to lower-cost offices abroad. "Much engineering design has been commoditized, so it can be done anywhere," says ExxonMobil's Dolan.

Cornell's Center agrees, and is discouraged by the prospects for U.S. engineering contractors. "Design engineering is becoming a commodity, not unlike steel plate, and more and more of it is moving overseas to follow the lowest cost per work hour," he says. "At the same time, corporations are placing more and more of their faith in the capability of the engineering contractors to design and construct process plants as they cut back their own capability in plant design and project management. A lot of more senior people have gone, and this leads to pedestrian designs to give the lowest-cost engineering." Only engineering firms that offer specialized process technology will thrive, he warns.

The picture is not all grim, though. The expertise and creativity of U.S. chemical engineers is a great competitive strength, many observers say. That's why much of the sophisticated work will remain in the United States, notes AspenTech's Evans. For the same reason, U.S.-based licensors and process designers will continue to lead, says Honeywell's Alzein.

 The ability to come up with new ideas is only part of the picture. A willingness to implement the ideas and reward the developers also is crucial, and this is another key strength of the United States. Our culture encourages entrepreneurship, Evans says.

Worries about competitiveness are overblown, says Joseph Jacobs, founder and chairman of Jacobs Engineering, Pasadena, Calif. The engineering firm has numerous offices around the world and employs about 1,000 chemical engineers in India alone. However, the ingenuity of American engineers is unrivaled, he says. "At Jacobs, the gutsy and creative work is done by a small group in the United States. Such work will remain in the United States because chemical engineers here are creative."

Retaining a technological edge is crucial for the United States, Byers says.
Overall, Cussler predicts a smaller profession 10 years from now. "There won't be a catastrophic reduction in the number of chemical engineering jobs," he says, explaining that the severest cutbacks already have occurred. "The worst is over but the best is not yet to come," he concludes. However, others are more optimistic. "The overall demand for chemical engineers will grow, but not explosively," Evans believes. In 10 years, however, it will be a much broader profession, he adds. Byers also foresees modest growth. Cabano says substantial growth only will come if the profession moves more strongly toward invention and away from more mundane work.

Mark Rosenzweig is editor in chief for Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail him at mrosenzweig@putman.net.

Join the discussion

We welcome your thoughtful comments. Please comply with our Community rules.
All comments will display your user name.

Want to participate in the discussion?

Register for free

Log in for complete access.


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments