Discussion Central

Expand all | Collapse all

Technical Support Engineer

  • 1.  Technical Support Engineer

    Posted 10-29-2018 19:37
    I'm curious to hear others' opinions on the emergence of remote process engineers. These technical support engineers provide process monitoring, troubleshooting, and optimization to refineries, petrochemical facilities, and other large-scale manufacturing sites. They are not employed by the company operating these sites; rather this service is offered for a fee or is included in a purchase agreement.

    One rationale for these positions is that they will help backfill the knowledge gap that is created when experienced engineers retire. So rather than dedicate resources to developing an in-house expert, the company can use the technical support engineer as an SME as well as providing process oversight. Working as a technical support engineer sounds appealing because your focus would be on in-depth process analysis, troubleshooting, and working with the customers to improve their operations.

    Does anyone have experience in these types of roles? What did you enjoy and/or what did you wish you could change?

    Do you see this trend lasting? Will more companies see this as a necessity? Lastly, how will these technical support programs evolve to suit the needs of the different chemical engineering industries?

    Alexander Slungaard
    Process Engineer

  • 2.  RE: Technical Support Engineer

    Posted 10-30-2018 12:52
    I wish I could do that.  The location of the facilities that could use a ChemE are 100+ miles from my home.  Remote employment would be a good fit for me.

    John Maziuk
    Ocean Pines MD

  • 3.  RE: Technical Support Engineer

    Posted 10-31-2018 09:51
    "One rationale for these positions is that they will help backfill the knowledge gap that is created when experienced engineers retire."

    The experience gap you are trying to fill was developed by interpersonal contact at the pointy end of the spear.

    It is not a case of just following a procedure, of maintaining the currently popular evolution of the term Operational Discipline,  "always follow the procedure."

    If this were true, there would be no angst about the retirement of Baby Boomers. Millennials can memorize procedures just as well as Baby Boomers. But what they lack is experience and judgement.

    And these are the skills for handling the most critical situations, the ones that go beyond Complicated to Complex. The situations where cause and effect cannot be determined ahead of time. It's that Complex instance when Process Safety systems are taxed. Being able to handle a Complex problem safely is what is meant by Resilience.

    Troubleshooting. Abnormal situation management. Probing within guidelines. Oftentimes, a Complex situation and the lessons learned provide experience. That is where the knowledge came from that you are trying to replace.

    That experience is gained by direct interaction with the people and situations themselves. That new knowledge is what allows for future procedures to be developed, and the next time the situation occurs, hopefully it is better understood, it is merely Complicated.

    This current description of Operation Discipline applies the term discipline as in punishment. Follow the procedure. Do "work as imagined." Or you will be disciplined. It has evolved to mean Discipline of Operators. Outcome bias becomes the basis for cause. Hindsight bias creates blame.

    Operational Discipline should be called "A Disciplined Approach to Operational Coordination." It's the approach of getting the correct people involved when in that troubleshooting mode, that probing mode, in that abnormal situation.  It's discipline as in the discipline required by team sports, not as in punishment. It is learning the proper lessons from "work as done" so that "work as imagined" can evolve.

    And getting the correct people involved requires interpersonal, direct engagement between the team.

    Steve Cutchen
    Houston TX

  • 4.  RE: Technical Support Engineer

    Posted 10-31-2018 18:35
    I agree with Steve.  Nothing can replace the interaction with people.

    Also, remote troubleshooting implies all data is always good.  I had one situation where the RTDs were wrong.  Being physically in the plant was required to determine the RTDs were faulty.

    Mark Wollum
    West Chester PA

  • 5.  RE: Technical Support Engineer

    Posted 11-01-2018 14:19
    This is a fascinating discussion and one in which I have a deep personal interest.  I work with refineries around the world in a remote capacity.  Of course, since my company specializes in simulation solutions, our field is a natural fit for early adoption of remote engineers, but I do see more of this coming in the future.  Here are a few thoughts on the matter, in no particular order:

    First of all, Mark's point is very important.  You always have to critically evaluate the data.  More data is good, but engineers need to thoughtfully consider meaning, and to discern between good data and bad data.

    The retirement of those with deep subject matter expertise is something industry will always need to address, but this trend seems to have been accelerating lately.  We participated in a panel through the AFPM earlier this year and collected feedback from a handful of deeply experienced engineers averaging 40 years each. They identified some key trends that contribute to a loss of deep industrial expertise, at least as related to downstream oil and gas, including: (1) a wave of retirements of deeply experienced subject matter experts, (2) changes in how younger engineers acquire deep technical knowledge, as opposed to a breadth of experience that's more conducive to a career path in management, and (3) extended equipment operating cycles combined with more instrumentation and computer control.  The last one is counter-intuitive; as we increasingly rely on more complex systems, the opportunities for engineers to think deeply and critically are harder to come by.  For more details, see the first section of this paper.

    You can't avoid the hand's on experience (great points Steve).  Getting that experience in a remote environment is extremely difficult.

    These are all arguments against the remote engineer.  However, I still see the role increasing in the future.  However, it will be a changed role, or more accurately a series of roles which can augment the in-house engineer.   Here are three ways I see this happening today, and likely increasing:
    1. Remote experienced subject matter experts as consultants. This is nothing new.  Those who gained deep knowledge can share that in a remote capacity with one or more organizations simultaneously.
    2. Remote monitoring.  As digitalization of plants increases, I see remote monitoring of equipment and processes expanding.  This isn't exactly the same as a remote Technical Support Engineer, but a role which augments the data analysis and interpretation through advanced analytics.  I see this as complementing and informing the in-house process engineer, rather than replacing the engineer.
    3. Remote specialty expertise.  If done well, remote specialty expertise can be relied upon more in the future.  We do that as a company where we are the experts on simulations for fluid-particle processes in various industries, and then partner with the process engineers who are experts on their own plants.  In general, the in-house process engineers will know their units better than anyone, but the specialty expertise partner a has deep specialty knowledge, not only related to their specialty, but as it related to plants all over the world.  As an example, see this paper on Knowledge Management as presented at this year's AFPM Cat Cracker Seminar.  

    Peter Blaser
    Vice President of Engineering Services
    CPFD Software
    Albuquerque NM