Politician Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace (1991), has multiple degrees in Philosophy, Economics and Politics.

Interview with an Engineer (2)

Thomas Chapman "Industrial Winter at -50º F"

NAME: Thomas R. Chapman

JOB TITLE/OCCUPATION:  Small Business Owner & Industrial Control System Integrator

PROFESSION/INDUSTRY:  Design, Develop, & Install New and Upgraded Control Systems for the Petroleum & Electrical Power Industries

EDUCATION:  B.A. in Resource Economics (with minors in Math & Physics), Tulane University, New Orleans, LA (1970)

ADDITIONAL PURSUITS & AREAS OF INTEREST:   Post graduate work at University of Washington, Seattle, and the Institute of Marine Science at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where I worked and pursued my interests in oceanography, marine surveys, and diving.

WEBSITE:  www.energiacura.com

What is your educational background, specific to your profession?

As an undergraduate I studied economics simply because I had no clue as to what I wanted to do, other than avoid the war in Vietnam. I was always a hard worker, but only a slightly better than the average student. After graduating I just wandered around, generally in a NW direction from New Orleans and ended up in the Northwest and eventually in Alaska. I started commercial fishing because I needed money and was attracted to the exotic work away from the ‘establishment’ and the ocean. The fun of  ‘life as a fisherman’ wore off, but my interest in the ocean remained, so I returned to school to study Marine Science. I should have known I was not so academically inclined, but got a good job with NOAA on a hydrographic survey ship, which required good math skills. I’ve since found almost everything I’ve done requires reasonably good math skills. I also found that principles of economics have universal applications. Supply, demand, etc., and the concept of a ‘balanced budget’ applies to everything from nutrients in a marine ecosystem to energy balances and efficiencies in everything, from nature to industrial plant operations.

One should never think their academic time and efforts were wasted because they will be used every day for the rest of your life in some way. I was always jealous of individuals who knew the wanted to be a doctor, or whatever, from the time they graduated from high school. They never had to endure the mental chaos and confusion that often accompanies not sincerely knowing what you want to do. In reality, I’ve found that very few people work directly in the field they studied in college, but those esoteric courses in philosophy, history, political science, and English plant little seeds in your brain that are often recalled in unconscious thought. A grand challenge is to not let the confusion result in doing nothing. Doing nothing is always an option, but generally not a good one. Just do something, anything, and do it hard, whether you like it or not. One thing will lead to another and more often than not, you’ll find you’re good at something because you worked hard at learning it, and soon it becomes a joy and really isn’t work at all.

What was your most valuable experience, that gave you the tools and insight to become an engineer?

A life-long regret of mine is that I never really found or latched on to a mentor or a specific person that provided inspiration in my life. That didn’t happen until I was married, we started having children, and suddenly I was responsible for someone other than myself. I wouldn’t call that an inspiration, but it’s certainly a powerful motivation. One should look to others for inspiration and motivation, for you may not find it in yourself.

Not all valuable experiences are positive. Some of the most powerful experiences may indeed be negative, abject failures, or apparently devastating experiences. After 5 years of working as a marine scientist, which I loved, I found I had to earn more money, so went found a job in the petroleum industry, one of those high paid jobs in the Alaskan oil industry. The first day they handed me a bunch of arctic gear and a toolbox and told me to go fix something I had no clue about. My ego was shredded, for I thought of myself as a scientist, not a tool carrying blue collar worker. From that time on, I was inspired to learn everything I could about my work. Most were satisfied with doing the work and getting paid, but I took my work home, lived the job 24/7, studied every night on my own time, and soon found I was the smartest person in the room. The problem was that the others were not real bright, so being the smartest was nothing to crow about. In fact, I realized many of the others were better than I at making things work in the real world and I had a lot of respect for them. They had not gone to college so perhaps didn’t know the math and physics, but they had great logical skills (common sense) and took pride in their work. I learned many valuable lessons from these workers, not the least of which was how to enjoy the work we did. The lesson is to be courteous and respectful because everyone has something they can teach you. Learning is a two-way street, so share your own knowledge and be observant and thoughtful.

As a working professional, what changes have you seen in your industry that have significantly affected how you work?

As anyone who grew up in the pre-computer world, of course I have to say technological advancements have affected the work I do more than anything else. It’s no surprise that more and more functions are now accomplished in software rather than real-world hardware. However, an equal or perhaps even more significant factor that affects my work today is the culture. I’m not referring to the often misguided ‘corporate culture’, but rather the American working culture, which seems to have become so narrowly focused. That is, we’re often forced by the ‘culture’ we work in to put blinders on and essentially ignore the bigger picture of cause and effect, and what’s going on around us. Success and even survival seems to depend on becoming ever more specialized. I view this as problem, a pitfall to avoid. Specialization allows us to learn more in-depth, but it’s important to always keep in mind where this piece of specialized skill or knowledge fits into the bigger picture.

I would like to address the antithesis of the question, or “what hasn’t changed that significantly affects my work”. One of these is the need make something work in the real world. All the technological advances, wonderful software, and grandiose schemes we devise have little or no value at all if, at the end of the day, they do not start a conveyor belt, operate a valve, turn the millstone and produce a product. I mean this in the broadest sense. Some would say doing research, writing, or creating art isn’t producing a product. I would disagree. A ‘product’ can simply be a piece of knowledge and someday it will have great value. When this goes awry we often describe it as the “tail wagging the dog”. In electrical power plants, it seems to many that the primary goal is measure and record pollutant emissions that comply with regulations. The point is missed that the real purpose is to generate electricity as efficiently as possible, while minimizing emissions. At a level above that, the real purpose is to generate a monetary profit for the owners and investors. We focus all too much on the profits and emission compliance, and just happen to generate a little electricity at the same time. Think about it the next time you plug in your iPhone charger.

With regards to the new generation of engineers, what are the skill sets that you are seeing?

In general, the skill sets I’m seeing are not the ones I’m really looking for. I’m seeing lots of young people with what they think are great computer skills for instance. In reality they are fast on a keyboard and can operate an iPhone with one thumb tied behind their back. These are skills you can learn in a trade school or by playing games for 15 years, but are not useful computer skills to me. These are indeed valuable trade skills if you want to be a cashier at the grocery store, but not what I’m looking for. I want someone who is #1) a hard and dedicated worker, and #2) has binary logic skills that can cause a software program to make a decision (output) based on the conditional inputs, and #3) a ‘thinking’ person. By this last skill, I mean one who will take on a tough problem and use his or her thought processes to understand the problem, take the enormously complex problem apart into simple, understandable pieces, and come up with a solution.

In job interviews and with students I have taught, I see way too much of “what will this job give me” and too little of “what can I bring to this job?” I’m also perplexed by the ‘expectations’ of many students and job seekers, which sometimes are interpreted as entitlements. The attitude seems to be that because I have a job I’m automatically entitled to salary and benefits. This is a bad attitude. I’m looking for people who feel they need to earn their salary and benefits every day, not those who feel I owe it to them just because they show up every day.

Nobody learns the skill sets they need in college or trade schools. They will learn the skills on the job, over time, but they have to know ‘how to learn’. I’m impressed by a job candidate that tells me about how much effort, research, and thought they put into writing a good English paper or a thesis. I’m not impressed by those who tell me “I’m a fast learner”. I would rather hire a thoughtful and creative learner than a fast learner.

It’s also very disappointing to me to see students with fewer and much reduced competency in basic math and writing skills. I see even bright engineering students who are calculus whiz-kids, but can’t do some basic algebra and simple percentages without their laptop. I have worked with some gifted programmers that write great computer code, but when I ask them to write a ‘control narrative’, I find their English skills so weak they can’t explain what they did.

What would your advice be to an aspiring engineer &/or to the institutions and instructors that are providing them with the education & “tools” they need to work in power generation?

Go back to basics. Technology has advanced tremendously, but the basic laws of physics, elementary math skills, and writing skills have not changed. Granted, young students, particularly in engineering, need practical skills, but they need to solve real problems, not just know how to pass a multiple choice test. Also, be willing to invest a lot of your own time and maybe some of your own money to learn. It’s the same as an economic or energy budget… you’ll only get out the energy you put in. As the first law of thermodynamics states: you can’t create or destroy energy, though you can transform it from one kind to another. So, turn the chaos and confusion into directed energy and knowledge that has value to yourself and others.

I think it’s most important to provide an inspiration. Good instruction and mentoring is invaluable and can save a student/intern a lot of pain, however, the student should know that he or she is only learning what others already know, which may not or may not be correct or appropriate today. Encourage students to question the knowledge base and inspire them to learn for themselves.

About ENERGIA CURA

Our consultancy division specializes in energy and process economics.  We assist Clients in the hedged acquisition of process fuel and/or feed stocks, negotiating long-term power purchase, power sales agreements or co-generation agreements.  In addition, we facilitate the conceptual development, financing, and construction and optimization of industrial facilities by performing Owner’s due-diligence from project inception, through start-up, and commissioning.  We take pride in our unbroken record of completing projects on time, within budget, and in meeting Client expectations.

Our product division supplies industrial control systems and HMI applications for electrical generation plants, oil & gas production facilities, hazardous liquids or gas pipelines, LACT facilities including leak detection and SCADA systems, oil & gas metering and custody transfer facilities, product terminal & dispensing facilities, municipal water facilities and ore concentration plants.  Energia Cura can arrange to provide prospective clients tours of working facilities to demonstrate the operation of its systems as they operate within their respective process environments.  As a rule at two weeks advanced notice is required.

Our services division offers on-going technical and administrative support to assist Clients in operating and maintaining their industrial facilities in a safe, profitable, and compliant manner.  Energia Cura’s service offerings range from “as needed” technical support to longer term, turnkey service agreements.  Competency of service includes PLC, DCS based control platforms including management of historians, report generation and all aspects of power, oil & gas facility operations.

Our metrology division provides third-party measurement and custody transfer services including sampling and administration of analytical assays, terminal acceptance, load-rack meter/instrument calibration/repairs, and NIST/API compliant meter proving.  Energia Cura owns and uses a Calibron P-25.C3.C1.D3 compact ballistic meter prover capable of proving meters with flowing conditions up to 2,500 GPM at .02% repeatability and a Sartorius weighing platform/indicator certified for legal gravimetric metrology with sensitivity in the range of 1/150,000 grams with an EC rating of Class II.

 

Projects

  • Distributed control system and HMI for an LM-6000 Combined Cycle Power Plant in North Pole, Alaska
  • HMI application for the British Petroleum Flow-2 Metering Facility located on the North Slope of Alaska
  • Control and automated water dispensing system for Water Wagon in Fairbanks, Alaska
  • In-Line-Inspection (pigging) of the mid-line TAPS connection pipelines in North Pole, Alaska
  • Construction of the new PSI Refinery Crude and Residual Pipelines in North Pole, Alaska
  • HMI for the British Petroleum Endicott Metering Facility on the North Slope of Alaska
  • ECDA and physical assessments of TAPS, mid-line interconnection pipelines in North Pole, Alaska
  • Alaska Rail-Belt power and gas market studies for Doyon Ltd in Fairbanks, Alaska
  • Power generation plant sizing and preliminary engineering in Nenana, Alaska
  • Construction of the PSI Refinery Metering and Quality-Bank sampling facility in North Pole, Alaska
  • Control system and HMI for the Ft. Greely Power Plant located in Delta, Alaska
  • Power Source and Requirements Study for the ITHM Mine Development in Livengood, Alaska
  • Boiler and balance of plant control system for the Ft. Wainwright Power Plant in Fairbanks, Alaska

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