Wake up. This may seem early, I know – but I like to get a clean start to the morning before the busy work day begins. So, I jump out of bed and slip on some board shorts then take my dog for a walk to the beach. My perfect start to the day is to dive into the cool Indian Ocean and let it refresh my head and bring me to my senses. My dog joins me for a swim – she knows she will be alone at home all day.
Work Preparation. I eat breakfast thinking about the day ahead and organising my personal thoughts and plans. I like to have fun in my post-work hours, and sometimes socialise with friends. Tonight, there is a social dinner with some work colleagues which I am looking forward to. Some mornings I will open my computer and do a quick check of the process. We can access all the online process information from home, which is fantastic for a Chemical Engineer.
Working on a Refinery means I wear high visibility clothing to work, so I get changed into this and slip on my steel capped boots. I have packed my lunch the night before, so I grab that and lock-up before getting in the car for my 50-minute drive to work. It would be nice to live closer to the Refinery, however I love where I live so having extra time in the car each day is worth it.
Morning Checks. Once at work, I open my shared office and make myself a morning coffee while collecting some printouts of process trends from the previous night. As a Chemical Engineer in a continuous, 24-hour process there is never a dull moment and I need to critically evaluate a range of metrics daily. I do this with the help of an online operator log, where the control board operators take notes of the proceedings on their shift. We also have online process information which assists me to piece together any problems that have arisen. It is important that I am aware of any new issues and have answers on-hand for the critical parameters which aren’t meeting target. All these things are about to come up in the morning meeting with the managers at the refinery.
Morning Meeting Process. At Alcoa we have a standard schedule of morning meetings which take place in each operating centre – and there are 4 operating centres which make up the main part of the refinery. Each operating centre runs their morning meetings at the same time, and each includes people of similar roles. There are operators, Engineers, supervisors and managers; everyone must collaborate and share information with each other to decide on the priority tasks for the day. I am the Area Chemical Engineer for Building 60 – an area of the process which manufactures a specialised product called Bright Hydrate.
The morning meetings are my greatest opportunity to influence the direction of work being conducted. As a Chemical Engineer, the ability to convince people to accomplish tasks is the sole most important skill. This is where I need to combine my morning checks with my process knowledge and people skills to ensure that the priorities are going to result in maximum production for the effort put in by the refinery workers.
The first meeting involves running through a standardised list of metrics with the control board operator, who flags the metrics which aren’t meeting target. The control board operator will then suggest the problem causing this metric to go bad, and an action to solve the problem. It is important as a Chemical Engineer to be critical of the problems raised by the control board operators, and whether they are affecting the metric in question, or not. The operators are usually quite effective at this, given their experience within the refinery, however this can be where your deeper knowledge of the process comes into play.
Next the entire operating centre comes together to broaden the discussion. In this room there are also shift group leaders, maintenance coordinators, Mechanical Engineers and others, and any important points from the previous meeting get carried across to this meeting. Safety is the first topic of this meeting, then we go through some other short to medium term issues within the operating centre and decide on a top list of priority tasks for the day. The operating centre manager will then take this list of priorities to the Refinery Morning Meeting, however only Senior Chemical Engineers attend this.
Morning Meeting Follow-Up. There are often issues raised in the morning meeting process which require further investigation or follow-up with other people. As a Chemical Engineer, it is part of my role to assist the operating centre with these issues, particularly if they are of a technical nature. An example of such an issue is assisting to calibrate a density meter. Here I will help the Electrician by taking process samples and delivering them to the laboratory for analysis. Once I have the result, I will inform the Electrician so that they can complete the calibration of the instrument.
This section of my day also involves checking my emails and responding to any essential requests. As a Chemical Engineer I can get asked a huge range of questions from different people on site. For example, today I responded to a maintenance coordinator as to whether the process would be affected by a power outage on one of our vessels. The image below shows me taking a heat scan of a tank to update the operating centre on its performance.
Time to do some Real Work. It is about this point in the day where I can stop looking at daily issues and think a bit broader and more long-term. Don’t get me wrong, there will still be issues unsolved! But there comes a point where I think its counter-productive to keep trying to solve them. And I can tell you, the complexity of some of these problems means you would spend all afternoon “nutting them out.” So, I take out my priorities list and spend an hour or so working on a longer-term project.
The nature of this work varies, but I can guarantee it will involve a program from the Microsoft Office suite. Today, for example, I spent an hour pulling process data from our information system into Excel and manipulating it to piece together a business case for a potential capital project in my area. This is the sort of task which gives value to my role as an Area Chemical Engineer. I have the breadth of understanding to know the sections of Building 60 which restrict production, and work to develop solutions for those restrictions.
Lunch. The Technical Department at my refinery is mainly comprised of Chemical Engineers, and we are lucky enough to eat lunch together every day. It’s a great environment and I enjoy discussions on a range of global issues – from having children to the ethics and agenda of the US President. Today I’m eating leftovers from last night. I rarely go and use the canteen but when I do, the food is great.
Project Meeting. Today I have a follow-up meeting with other Alcoa Engineers from different departments. We have all been working together on a project in building 60 to try and improve the performance of the process. The project is progressing well, and we are now at the stage of completing all related procedures and other documentation. The meeting concludes with an action list and date for the next catch-up.
Afternoon Tasks. My day continues with an afternoon coffee and discussion with my office colleagues. We often talk about the morning’s events and how they relate to broader Alcoa concepts. There is never a shortage of topics to discuss! Although this is not directly productive, we are always sharing our knowledge and experience with each other to make us better Chemical Engineers.
Some tasks which I will complete in the afternoons include weekly and monthly routines, project work, process monitoring and developing process plans for the operating centre. It is important that I keep on top of my priorities by regularly checking-in with my supervisor to ensure that my efforts are directed at the right projects. As an Area Chemical Engineer, there will be more ideas, suggestions and projects than what it is possible to conduct. This applies for all areas of the process at an Alumina Refinery. I find this exciting and stimulating because my days always seem to go fast as my attention shifts between daily priorities and long-term issues.
My working day officially ends at 3:30 PM however I often stay later to close-out some tasks which I have started. I check my schedule for the following day to ensure I have done any necessary preparation and then shutdown my computer and make my way out of the refinery.
Evening Time. My afternoons and evenings are spent having fun with friends or relaxing at home with my wife. Tonight, I head out to a casual dinner with some of the other Engineering graduates, and we have a few drinks and some laughs. Its great to talk with people who share common values and beliefs about the world and I thoroughly enjoy being a part of the Grad Program.
Quiet Time. Heading home I make some lunch for the next day and crash out around 9:30 PM. I enjoy reading a novel or having a stretch before going to sleep around 10 PM, ensuring my mind is clear and peaceful for a good nights’ sleep.