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Difference In The Mind Set Of Operations And Design Engineers

I have seen both aspects of engineering -Operations and Design and hence feel some what qualified on the subject of how a operations enineer and a design engineer think. Ideally, there shouldn't be a diference in the manner which an engineer thinks and analyzes be it Operations or Design. But having seen both aspects of engineering the fact of the matter is that in most cases an operations engineer doesn't see eye-to-eye with the design engineer.

Operations engineers abhor change. The fact that the plant / unit is running trouble free with a certain configuration of the plant / unit and certain parameters brings out the thought process that change is bad. I used to think in a similar fashion as an operations guy. We had a technical services team who were something closest to a design group in the plant. Their job was to suggest changes in plant configuration and parameters. However, the operations group used to always feel that they were tresspassing in their domain.

However, during any breakdown and subsequent re-start of the plant the operations group was in the forefront, working like a well-oiled machine to restore production & product quality. At times when the technical services guys would come up with some strong suggestions for change, the operations group used to resist by taking the stand that any misfortune due to the suggested changes would be squarely on the account of the tech services guys.

Since the tech services guys were not accustomed to troubleshooting during any process upset, they used to be apprehensive about taking the responsibility for any unforessen mishap which could lead to production downtime and consequent financial losses.

After spending close to 11 years in production where the overall thinking was that change is not good, I realized that I was getting stuck in a rut and going nowhere. With some effort and quite a bit of luck I was able to move out of production and join a engineering design consultancy.

This was a different world altogether. I was supposed to design and size equipment which I used to operate. Moreover, I was getting exposed to constant change in technology, whereby introduction of new technology was being done on a regular basis for improved safety, ease of operation and increased productivity and profitability.
It was a pleasant surprise to know that things could be done better. The same result could be achieved by adopting different methods was a revelation to me. Flexibility had replaced rigidity.

I now knew that this was my true calling. My basic instincts were more in sync with change and flexibility than rigidity.

But what happened to me was something a bit out of the ordinary. Not many of my colleagues were lucky to have this kind of experience. Many of them are now Plant Managers and Works Managers of the production company where they work and are well settled in their careers but the mindset is still of an operations guy. I wish them all the best in their lives for they have their own familial and social responsibilities and are doing great in their careers as well as being responsible members of our society.

I consider myself singularly lucky of having been exposed to both aspects of a chemical engineers career - Operations & Design.

Would like to hear of some similar experiences from other distinguished forum members.


A very interesting blog post, in my country there are plenty of opportunities to be in operations, and I consider myself fortunate to be undergoing training in a design company. I have to say that I'm very happy to be in the designing aspect, I love learning about new advances in the field & I love the whole process of designing parts of, and ultimately contributing to the design of a plant. I guess one thing about being in operations is one tend to pigeonhole their career: once an operations guy, always an operations guy. The only difference if you advance in this path is a bigger paycheck & you supervise more.

I'm still new but I think I'd stick to what I'm doing right now ;)
Qalander (Chem)
Sep 28 2010 04:57 AM
Dear ankur Hello/Good Afternoon,

Do Recieve my heartiest Congratulations for this bog.

I share similar feeling as you have, being worked in Operations slightly longer around 14 years and tech services only about an year or so!

One thing which I must mention about the mindset of Operation Guys is their
feeling of security and safety for physical presence of various critical operating controls situated/ located in-place where they are!Just ensuring safe and swift start-ups and shut down in emergency situations.
As the staff to operate these gets accusstomed through learning by -hart such controls.
"Changes" creat a new set to be accustomed and get a firm grip to have safe start-ups and shut downs;you will appreciate the usual human psychy.
This creates their "rigidity" as you defined if there is sufficient traing and accstomisation in-place the 'rigidity' may be changed into "Flexibility" with certain amount of cosistent work inputs especially highlighting benefits including ease of physical operations,better productivity and larger profits with shared returns.
Best regards
I agree, interesting post.

As I was undergoing similar Baptation process (Operations, Technical Service, Process Design, then back to Operations Support, and now in Commissioning/Startup), I slightly tend to disagree with the observation that process design roles offer more advantage over Ops/Tech Service positions - but this is anyway a matter of personal preference.

I have seen a lot of idiots and incompetent people amongst design engineers, but I don't remember seeing such a complete idiot within Operations environment. And this observation has been substantiated many times, by the years spent in the Oil & Gas industry. The reasoning is quite simple: a design engineer is useless and incompetent without Operational experience, if he has spent his career without chance to observe and to be held responsible for plant operation, production efficiency, and process safety. For him/her, a process plant always remains just a set of P&IDs, equipment datasheets, line sizing and relief valve sizing calculations, always driven by Codes and Standards written by someone else, and which are blindly obeyed. I remember seeing ready-made spreadsheets, and engineers entering input values and reading outputs from the spreadsheet, and that was their entire mental effort in producing process design deliverables. I know many colleagues and friends who work in EPC companies, and having similar experiences.

On the other hand, I always admire the way Operations people (panel operators in particular) manage process operations, control, and troubleshooting. You can always hear something new from these fellows, and always learn something new from them - if you are capable of listening and if you are not blinded by the fact that you have an engineering degree. That would be the same like being proud on yourself for having brown eyes, in front of someone, while the other person has blue or green eyes. Pointless. In addition to what I have said, Operations people have very sharp eye in recognizing equipment problems, and proposing different ways to mitigate those problems - even if they cannot explain it to you from a thermodynamic standpoint. But who cares for that anyway? Just imagine yourself (whether you are design or operations engineer) facing imminent plant shutdown due to vessel rupture, freezing inside the equipment, or loss of power, and while all this is taking place you are sitting on the panel operator chair. And you are the one to make an action. Just going once through such scenario would give you more "process" in your blood than designing 30 plants from a comfortable office, where all mistakes simply end up in a trash bin.

A true engineer - process engineer - should have both, in my opinion. Neither one of the two makes him better, smarter, happier, more competent, more exposed to a dynamic career or environment. An engineer has to be capable to design a piece of equipment, but it has to be able to operate that equipment, to troubleshoot its malfunctioning, to rectify actual problems in the field. Without that, he's just a clerk following design manuals, codes, and standards (which are actually based on Operating experiences), and without a chance to really get into the real world of process engineering.

I was in the middle east for 4-1/2 years and I have been to many upstream O&G and refining sites. The ignorance of the local operations guys at those installations had to be seen to be believed. Leaving aside the theory part of chemical engineering these guys who used to sit in the air conditioned comfort of the DCS control room were not even aware where a particular equipment was located in the field. They were provided written instructions to set parameters to run the unit from the DCS. Any deviation in the process from the set parameters would leave them at their wits end. Off-speification product or production deferment was a common phenomena. All the trouble-shooting and restoration of the production post-breakdown was done by a selected few expatriates.

Having worked in operations I had developed my own signature style of troubleshooting which I was comfortable with and any other method would make me uncomfortable.

And of course as an operations guy I also used to feel that all design engineers are idiots and incompetent (a liitle arrogant attitude, don't you think).

My blog was meant to highlight that in a majority of cases there is more disagreement then agreement between the operations engineer and the design engineer.

As an example I would like to quote two cases:

I was in China for a commissioning assignment. A particular pump suction line had a loop provided to it. The clients operations engineer had the line modified by straightening it during night time by the piping contractor. The next morning when I questioned the logic of straightening the pipe, his caustic reply was that we didn't know how to design. Well I had a tough time convincing him that the loop in the line was provided to relieve stresses due to the high temperature service.

During the same commisioning experience, we were unable to achieve the outlet temperature of the process fluid from a plate heat exchanger. After plying all the tricks of the trade, I concluded that the PHE was bought incorrectly and was undersized. The client (operator) was furious and told me that we were design guys who didn't know hown to commission a plant. I had to show them that the heat duty of the bought PHE was far less than the one specified in the PHE specificaton. The local chinese subsidiary of Alfa Laval had screwed up in unit conversion of heat duty from metric units to SI units.

Competent and incompetent people exist both in operations and design and I am not debating that . The debate was about the difference in the mind set of operations and design engineers.


If you read my post more carefully, you'll see that I have used different description than "all design engineers are idiots" - I have particularly addressed those engineers lacking of basic knowledge how process equipment works in the field, in reality. And solely based on my own personal experiences, these were 80-90% of the personnel in a few EPC companies I have been dealing with. Sad, but true. As a person who had spent a few years in process design, I know what I am speaking about.

Comparing a top class design engineer with a Middle Eastern-native field or panel operator is a bit unfair, in my opinion, as we know that they - at this stage - are mostly undergoing educational and training stages in their career, no matter what is their official position tittle. I also see that majority of operators in Middle Eastern companies are Philippians and Indians, not so many Arab natives around. But I'm sure you will not entitle them as incompetent idiots - if nothing else than solely from the feeling of respect towards your own country.

The thing is that I mostly agree with your original post - in the sense that you had (and used) the chance to access Process Design from the right perspective, from the most thanksgiving position: Operations (or Tech Service). Your experience and feelings would be - I believe - completely different if you were about to start your career as a design engineer, and spend 20 or 30 years in the office without having opportunity to witness and combat against all the practical issues that you had been facing as an Operations man. That experience has given a tremendous insight and the feeling of confidence to us, once when we have found ourselves within Process Design or Consultancy environment.

All the best,

I wasn't refering to Indians and Fillipinos in the lower and middle level operating staff. In 2010, approximately 50% or more lower and middle level staff are the local citizens what with the Saudisation, Qatarisation, Emiratisation and Omanisation drives going on in these countries.

Many of the upper level staff (both operations and design office) are also from other middle-east countries.

The expatriate staff of Indians, Fillipinos, Britishers, Americans and other nationalities are the ones who are till date sustaining the trouble-free operations of these remotely located desert installations. Some of the local staff are also very good but by and large they are an exception.

In fact, I was once complaining to an Indian colleague of mine that the local engineers don't want to take up any responsibility and he being a veteran in the middle-east, told me not to fret too much and jokingly mentioned that if these guys start being responsible then you and me will not be required.

Qalander (Chem)
Sep 30 2010 11:07 AM
I have slightly different opinion not directly linked 'BASICALLY' to nationalities or race.

I have the opinion who so ever works hard using his brains and physical faculties to the maximum sustainable limits i.e. struggles and strives for
most usually gets the best out in the form of resultant "POSITIVE/ Acceptable/ACKNOWLEDGED outcome.

Some Motivating factors or constraints do interfere especially the available returns at that person's choice in comparison to other options back home etc.
Moreover in certain ways I second 'Zuberberg' and in Certain ways second 'ankur';as both of you have great/sound expertise at the back; for Which I am in-person a real/true admirer in my humble capacity.

One point 'that I read somewhere in one of the process engineering design text" during my very short stay in technical services is absolutely valid for any modification or extra security system provision.
"Any system improvement modification if not easily 'operable' will "not be operated " therefore either be relocated with 'operating ease location' or better scrap( do-away with) the proposal."
This how I recalled conceptually and considered worth mentioning in Dear"ankur's current blog"
Best Regards to both of you.

Interesting and illuminating.  Thank you very much

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