A need for new listening skills

This edition of OEM Insight finds that although most of today's project decision makers are talented and hard-working, they don't necessarily understand many of the methods engineers take for granted.

 By Clifford Speedy, PE


s a consultant, I’ve had the luxury of working in a variety of facilities over the past 15 years. Recently, I’ve noticed a disconcerting trend. When I started working in the industry, most of our clients had teams with whom we collaborated during a project. They recognized the benefit of having a staff that understood not only how to engineer processes but how the process of engineering works. They always included folks from operations, maintenance and safety to ensure that the execution of a project was looked at from all directions. We didn’t need to make ourselves be heard because someone was already listening.

In the past few years, these collaborators at some of our clients have disappeared. This might seem a prime opportunity for us to garner business, but it often creates headaches and more hard feelings at the project’s end.

A large beverage manufacturer hired a plant engineer to completely upgrade its manufacturing facility. His plan to convert an old manual line into a state-of-the-art aseptic line would increase product quality and make for a more marketable package.

The project was a resounding success. We designed and commissioned the system and trained the operators and maintenance staff.

Over the next two years, however, the lab manager responsible for the batching software and the plant engineer, the only on-site person who fully understood aseptic processing, were both gone. The only ones left were two of the operators and one of the maintenance staff. A plant that once boasted 98% yields is drastically more inefficient, and we are in the unenviable position of defending our original design.

Plant management should have understood this never was a simple system that would simply run itself. They needed to plan for the impact of personnel turnover or realize the potential and act to prevent it.

Another manufacturer had a series of projects to update an aging plant. Against our recommendations, the operations manager—the sole decision maker—focused on the packaging end instead of the batching area. We completed the first few projects without significant downtime, but the plant saw little in the way of optimization. The antiquated batching area was still untouched 18 months later. The millions planned to be spent were taken back, and the plant was shut down and sold.

As we helped identify equipment for relocation to other plants I wondered, had there been a long-term plan identified, one not so dependent on short-term results, would the outcome have been different?

Yet another project was an R&D effort to convert a batch operation to continuous, something no one had accomplished in this industry. Through much trial and error, we succeeded. The control system was one of the most complex, and the process one of the most dynamic that I have ever worked on.

After commissioning, the company accountants reviewed the total project. With the cost of experimentation associated with the startup, the project did not fit their payback guidelines, and they blamed us for poor estimating.

Our numbers were accurate. We told the client at the beginning that we had no idea how much time and material would be needed to commission this system. No one had done anything like this before.

There still are hard feelings about this job. It’s really a shame; it represents some of the best work we’ve done. The system runs great, producing the highest-quality material, but the project is considered a failure.

There has been a major change in who makes the decisions among some of our clients. I don’t mean to slight these people. They are talented, hard-working and try to do best by their companies, but they are working from a limited perspective. They still do not understand many of the methods engineers take for granted.

This is where we must do better. We cannot continue to communicate the same old way. There are new people listening, with a new set of skills and expectations. We have to find a way to convey our expertise. Whether we are consultants trying to ensure project success or a maintenance technician trying to optimize downtime or simply an overworked plant engineer, we have to find a way to be heard.

Clifford Speedy, P.E., is a consulting engineer with Chemical & Industrial (C&I) Engineering in Louisville, Kentucky. You can reach him at

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