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Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology

Career Talk: Process Engineer’s Role Managing Uncertainly and Risk

CEB's Head of Department, Professor John Dennis, welcomed back alumnus Dr Gary Smith, who came to the Department to give a career talk on the process engineer's role in managing technical uncertainty and risk successfully.

Dr Smith, a good friend of the Department and currently INVISTA Intermediates Vice President of Sustainability, undertook his PhD studies here from 1982-85, at the same time Professor Dennis was doing his PhD here.

In his career talk to undergraduates, Gary illustrated the different approaches to technical uncertainty/risk management that one can apply at different stages of the product/process development lifecycle from discovery/R&D through to final commercialisation.

He started off with an overview of his company INVISTA, a member of the CEB Teaching Consortium, before moving onto the core of his talk and the ways to generate business value by managing risk and technical uncertainty. In his current role, Gary is responsible for development and execution of sustainability strategies, including the development and application of new technologies for bio-derived chemicals and polymers.

Gary has worked in the chemical and polymers industry for ICI, DuPont and INVISTA in a variety of technical and leadership roles in the U.K. and U.S.A. In his nearly 30-year career, he has taken a variety of process and product technologies from conception to successful commercialisation. He said that his passion and interest mainly lie on making things happen and integrate successfully by for example deciding which technologies were best to use. 'As an R&D Manager one always looks for emerging and disruptive technology'; he added.

INVISTA is a global company operating in 20+ countries, spread over 70+ locations and with 10.000+ employees.  It looks to meet the needs of customers by creating value and exceeding their expectations with a huge commitment to sustainability, creating long-term value for society. He highlighted that 'management of technical risk is an important aspect of being an engineer and the key is to resolve uncertainties to risk and reduce them to acceptable levels'.  He also called in managing risks, one cannot forget about the issues and key challenges to be faced, especially in two main areas: Process Design & Operations and R&D.

With regards to Process Design and Operations:  in the chemical engineering world there are changes made to processes and how that changes is manages is hugely important. In addition, there are organisational and human factors that can lead to people ignoring or 'down-playing' known risks.

As per R&D: Processes need to be better defined so that uncertainties can be reduced. Prioritising which risks to work on is key. One needs to apply finite R&D resources /cost in a way that reduces risks and uncertainty the most. Also required is the measuring the economic/business impact of reducing risk.

His talk also gave students real industrial examples including some key learnings drawn from disasters like the Flixborough plant explosion in 1974 and Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Gary added that something important and valuable he has learned from being a chemical engineer for 30 years is that 'the engineer’s job is to quantify what s/he doesn’t know and try to understand it so that one can make better decisions. S/he will need to put limits on uncertainty reducing it to an appropriate whilst economic level'.

For more information on career options INVISTA has to offer see

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