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Process Plant Layout Revisited

Posted on March 23rd, 2017 by in Chemical R&D


I have more than 25 years of experience as a chemical engineer working in process design, but I also served as an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, coordinating the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. One thing at Nottingham and elsewhere, is the fact that process plant layout is no longer taught in academia. It’s my hope, though, that my update and revision of Mecklenburg’s Process Plant Layout, a classic 1985 textbook, can help fix that.

Making a Classic Relevant Again

Although it was state-of-the-art at its time, in reading the book, I couldn’t help but to see that a lot has changed over the years since its original publication. More design work is outsourced and design capabilities have advanced considerably, to name but two. Computers have transformed things, too, but oddly enough the difference isn’t so much about what the computers do (which hasn’t altered so much over the years), but rather the fact that they can do so much so quickly.

No doubt the inevitable changes that have come with the march of time have contributed to the fact that the Mecklenburg book stopped being used for teaching several years ago, but there are other problems too. Having been written by a committee, it had numerous inconsistencies. The writing style was problematic, as were its definitions, which weren’t formed from a consensus. It overemphasized certain areas while ignoring others, and the text offers just a single methodology. On the visual side of things, its pictures also had a lot to be desired, with many of them looking like they’re from the 1940s, rather than the 80’s.

So how could I take a great, albeit woefully out-of-date, textbook and make it better? That began with some practical matters – reading the book, scanning it, marking it up where it was outdated. Then I surveyed a number of practitioners from around the world on certain key questions (e.g. how do you go about laying out a plant?). Taking their input into account, I produced a rough draft of updated chapters, which I then sent to a much larger group of practitioners, asking them: Is this correct, complete, and current? Then, through conversations and correspondence, I was able to improve upon the text further.

Of course, not everything has changed since 1985, so there was plenty from the original version of the book that survived the process. After all, the nature of the design process is still the same, as the stages of the process haven’t really changed. Drawings remain incredibly important, and the sight of a group of engineers standing around a table looking at a 2D drawing is as common as ever. Certainly the vital importance of both layout designers and good layout remains the same.

A Layout Textbook for the 21st Century

Looking broadly at the updates made to Process Plant Layout, there were a couple of hundred new pages written, as well as several hundred new pictures (many full color) added. I fixed the consistency problems and the definitions of terms. Dozens of helpful case studies that warn of how a poor layout can lead to a disaster have been added, as have appendixes. Furthermore, the book now highlights multiple methodologies from a number of disciplines.

Some might wonder why I felt it was so worthwhile to re-visit this textbook and do so much work to extensively revise, update, and add to it. The reason is because if we are to get back to teaching layout, we need a comprehensive and current textbook to teach from. But others still might wonder why teach it at all – I mean, isn’t it a bit old-fashioned, they might say?

I believe there are many important reasons that it ought to be taught. Some are pedagogic: Studying layout exercises spatial intelligence and demands that you think about how to put things together. It offers an opportunity to learn an additional dimension to design evaluation. Further, this line of learning ultimately makes hydraulic calculations more meaningful. There is also a considerable professional value to the study of layout: As important as it is, the skills it requires are increasingly rare in younger engineers, so it can be expected to enhance employability.

Those are just a few of the ways that bringing process design methodology back into the classroom can help a new generation of chemical engineers in their study and work. It is my hope that this new edition of Mecklenburgh’s wonderful text will empower them with a new set of tools and knowledge.

Find out more about Process Plant Layout in this webinar: Thought Leader webinar: Process Plant Layout with Chemical Engineer Sean Moran 


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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