What do petrochemical engineers really do

What does a process engineer do?

To put it simply, a process engineer develops and checks the workflows of processes. In other words, all processes in which substances are changed in terms of their type, their properties or their composition according to scientific principles. Read more about the activities of a process engineer here.

Process engineer is an exciting and varied profession.

Photo: panthermedia.net/WavebreakmediaMicro

General overview of the activities

Process engineers line up machines and devices to create a system that conveys substances from machine to machine. Step by step, these raw materials are turned into products. Measurement, control and regulation technology, which also fall within the area of ​​responsibility of a process engineer, ensure that everything runs correctly.

Typical industries for process engineering are chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Process engineers can also find work in the recycling and environmental sectors, in the food and beverage industry, in the paper industry and in biotechnology. Wherever it is a question of changing basic materials in such a way that they either become materials for further processing or products that are ready for consumption. In contrast to, for example, the automotive or computer industry, in which the end products are predominantly simply assembled from prefabricated components, process engineering production is completely different.

Raw materials, auxiliary materials and / or operating materials are specifically changed according to scientific principles (chemistry, physics, biochemistry) using special systems. It is therefore the engineering science of matter conversion. The work of the process engineer is the basis for the production of, for example, fuels, cosmetics, alcohols, plastics, dyes, medicines and food.

But not only the conversion of the substances itself is part of the job of a process engineer. In many cases, process engineering also covers the development of the corresponding systems, which actually belong to system construction. The main task of the process engineer is to select the equipment, components and materials required to build the plant. The complex systems in process engineering in particular make it necessary to fall back on the specialist knowledge of specially trained engineers. When developing the systems, process engineers must also take into account the cost-effectiveness of the system, for example by combining several steps of a system in one process step and thus optimizing the process.

Process engineers are not only responsible for the operation, but also for the maintenance of process engineering systems, which include cleaning systems, pumps, stainless steel tanks and piping systems. Because that is a typical feature of process engineering: the materials "flow". If you take a closer look at process engineering systems, for example for the production of cosmetics, you will mainly see parts such as piping systems, homogenizing and cleaning systems, stainless steel tanks, pumps, dosing and conveying systems.

Knowledge of the materials to be processed, the technologies used and the products that are created are important for process engineering production. The subdivision of the individual process engineering systems is usually based on the basic operations that are carried out in the system or in a system section. There are systems for changing the material properties (for example by crushing, cooling, drying), systems for changing the composition of the material (for example by filtration or distillation) and systems for changing the type of material (by oxidation, hydrogenation, polymerization). Lined up in a row, such basic operations result in the overall process.

Since every process in which substances are converted is subject to process engineering, it is practically part of every science. The process engineer makes use of the possibilities of engineering. Process engineering is very interdisciplinary and uses elements from metallurgy, chemistry, mechanical engineering or biotechnology. Process engineering is closely related to chemical engineering, although the focus is exclusively on chemistry.

Process engineering is again divided into various disciplines, which a process engineer can specialize in in his or her profession. These are mechanical, thermal, chemical and electrochemical process engineering, bioprocess engineering and plant engineering. In addition, there are a few fields of application, which are, however, far more specific. For example electroplating, semiconductor physics, plastics technology, food technology or metallurgy.

In summary, the activities of the process engineer include the following focal points:

  • Development of process engineering processes
  • Optimization and further development of existing processes
  • Construction and development of process plants
  • Commissioning of systems and individual components
  • Development of test and measurement methods
  • Development of control and regulation systems
  • Implementation of process evaluation and preparation of process reports
  • Calculating the manufacturing costs of new products
  • Development of calculation models for product and process development

Qualities and soft skills that process engineers should bring with them are:

  • Completed engineering degree (e.g. process engineering or mechanical engineering)
  • Interest in science
  • Enthusiasm for technology
  • Professional experience in the field of process and plant engineering
  • Methodological knowledge in the analysis of processes
  • first experience in project management
  • good knowledge of MS Office and CAD software
  • Ability to work in a team
  • Good communication skills
  • solution-oriented thinking
  • analytical thinking
  • very good knowledge of English
  • possibly willingness to (international) business trips

How do you become a process engineer?

To become a process engineer, or process engineer for short, you need a degree in engineering. You can find out here which subjects allow the highest entry-level salaries. Process engineering is offered as a separate course at technical universities and colleges. A study duration of 3 to 4 years should be planned for the bachelor's degree and another 1 to 2 years for the advanced master’s degree. Depending on the university, the process engineering course has its own focus, the courses are named accordingly. For example:

  • Process and environmental technology
  • Bioprocess engineering
  • Biotechnology and Process Engineering
  • Biotechnology and process engineering
  • Process, energy and environmental technology
  • Process engineering - energy, environmental and biotechnology
  • Mechanical engineering / process and energy technology

There is currently no numerus clausus, which means an admission restriction, for the study of process engineering. However, this can change from semester to semester, depending on the increase in interest. It is advisable to find out about this in good time. Because if you do not achieve the given grade with the higher education entrance qualification, you may end up having to wait unnecessarily.

The process engineering course is very interdisciplinary. It conveys many different engineering aspects. Mathematical and scientific content is combined with engineering technology as well as electrical and environmental technology. Due to its complexity and interdisciplinarity, the process engineering course is usually linked to its own focus right from the start (see above). But even during the course of their studies, students have the opportunity to choose individual areas of specialization. These include, for example, bio and / or environmental technology, plant engineering, pharmaceutical technology, energy technology or renewable energies. The content and course of the process engineering course can vary from university to university.

One focus that is conveyed in the bachelor's degree is basic knowledge in chemistry, biology and mathematics. Physics, electrical engineering and materials engineering, mechanics and thermodynamics are also part of the course content. In the master’s program, the corresponding specialization takes place in one of the above-mentioned specializations.

Where do process engineers work?

Sales engineers can work in many engineering industries. They are particularly in demand in the following branches of the engineering industry:

  • Chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries
  • Basic industry (extraction / processing of raw materials)
  • Power generation
  • Engineering offices, engineering, technical service providers
  • Plastics industry and processing

Since the process engineer course is very interdisciplinary, process engineers are spoiled for choice in their later professional life. There is a wide range of uses for them: They can work as a researcher in the laboratory, as a developer of systems, as a programmer of simulations for process sequences or as the operator of production systems. A job as a calculation and project engineer can also be considered. Process engineers are wanted in the entire industry of the sectors mentioned as well as in the corresponding plant construction companies and research institutions.

While mineral raw materials, for example, are prepared in the petrochemical or chemical industry, knowledge of thermal processes, solids processing and shaping is required in the food industry.

This is what you deserve as a process engineer

The average gross salary as a process engineering engineer is 52,400 euros per year. This applies to graduates with a master's degree or doctorate. Those who can only show a bachelor's degree have to expect significant losses in salary. It is then around 40,000 euros gross per year, sometimes even lower due to certain influencing factors. However, the possible annual salary also differs from industry to industry. Process engineers in the chemical industry have better earning potential than in the food industry, for example. There are also differences between mechanical engineering and the electrical industry.

Other factors that influence the size of the salary are the location and size of the company. Corporations pay higher salaries than small and medium-sized companies with a maximum of 5,000 employees. Since the large corporations are mostly based in West Germany, the statistics also show the higher earnings of process engineers there. For engineers with professional experience, they are between 60,000 and 101,000 euros gross annually. In East Germany it is only between 30,000 and 70,000 euros - with the lowest salaries being paid in Saxony in a direct comparison.

The wide range of 30,000 to 101,000 euros gross salary per year is based not only on the company's location and size, but also because the job of process engineer brings with it many different requirements. Anyone who takes on a lot of responsibility and holds a position with correspondingly independent options for action naturally receives more salary than a process engineer who only takes on specified tasks in an employee relationship. Increased work experience is also a factor that can increase earnings. Those who pay attention to the regional differences and focus on the corresponding federal states when looking for a job can increase their salary individually.

You can find out a lot more about engineering salaries in our salary study.

In the past few years, the number of people employed in the process engineering profession has increased significantly. Skilled workers are sought and their knowledge of how certain products are made from raw materials is mainly used in the new industries. For example, when processing biomass that is to be converted into energy. Process engineering is not as strongly affected by economic fluctuations as other professions. This is because process engineers are indispensable for the development and implementation of new products. And new developments are also carried out in times of economic weakness.

Digitization also affects the job of process engineer, but not in a negative sense. Digital progress is changing the work equipment and the environment, but not the need to need someone who can operate and develop these devices. With regard to digitization, process engineers “only” have to adjust to the changed use and development of systems. So far, they don't have to fear losing their job.

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