Progress comes from failure but it doesn’t have to be your failure. This is especially true in the world of manufacturing where those who understand the alchemy of chemicals and minerals painfully determine success.
Such is the motto of Process Engineering Associates LLC, an East Tennessee that was formed in January 1996 to provide process design, engineering, and safety services to any and all of the chemical processing industries: metals, energy, pharmaceuticals, mineral extraction, pulp and paper, waste handling, specialty chemicals, chemical plants among many.
There are lots of good inventions in garages and shops and even in the laptops of engineers working for Fortune 500 companies, but not all of them should or can make it in the real world.
Engineering scale up is to garage inventors what headlights are to Bambi’s mother in a national park: unknown danger.
There is a divide the size of the Grand Canyon between a garage-sized idea and one that makes money in the real world. The problem is that things work differently at the small scale than they work in real life because of engineering issues.
Traditionally inventors of both the garage and the corporate kinds picked one of two approaches to scale up their invention: 1. The systematic approach, and 2. The-trust-your-instincts approach.
Alas bankruptcy courts are full of entrepreneurs who trusted their instincts and did not know to call on a front-end engineer to tell them what to do and more importantly what not to do.
Let’s say you want to turn bacon fat into fuels to run your Diesel VW van which has big pink flowers painted on the side. You Google “biodiesel recipe” and with some methyl alcohol and some drain cleaner you can concoct a liquid that runs your VW van to the wonderment of your three best buddies who enthusiastically decide to chip in ten thousand dollars in a new venture. This prompts you to run to the hardware store and design the biggest alembic you have ever seen in your life. With trembling fingers you turn it on to realize that there are crystals that form at the bottom of your fuel. Because you’re too far into the venture and you don’t want to disappoint your buddies, you size up the machine to resolve the problem of crystal formation to find that you need to resize your pumps. You fix the pumps but then you realize that you can’t heat up the diesel because the elements are too small. This goes on forever until you run out of money. In this case, it would have been best to hire process engineers at the onset to tell you how to design your system. It might have saved three years of your life and the million dollars you sank into the venture—some of it your house and the garage where it all started which you used as collaterals for a bank loan.
Big businesses make proportionally bigger mistakes. Let’s say the CEO of a papermill decides to improve wastewater treatment because it is a rate-limiting factor in paper production. The mill manager calls in some vendors and the vendors suggests a new waste treatment plant, which has been very successful for two weeks for treating solid waste for San Francisco. But the papermill is in Maine? Does it matter? It might but the vendor is adamant. So the papermill retrofits its water treatment plant to find that it does not work.
In both these examples front-end process engineering by an independent firm would have prevented the issues. To the garage inventor, it might have killed the dreams of financial independence but at least it might have saved the family home. To the paper mill it would have saved a month’s worth of production and the stern stares of the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to Hop Boyd, founder of Process Engineering Associates: “All processes that require chemical engineering should be carefully planned by a front-end process engineer whose job is to create the technical boundaries of the projects. This is like the recipe that will permit the mechanical engineers, the civil engineers and the electrical engineers to do a good job. Otherwise there is danger for people to start spending money before they really know what they’re getting into. Like getting ahead of your headlights.”