A Lot of Bottle

Article by Adam Duckett

Ella Howells talks about her switch from oil and gas to the drinks industry

IN THIS series, we speak to chemical engineers working outside of the fossil fuel sectors to highlight the breadth of opportunities open to those just starting their careers or seeking to change sectors.

Ella Howells is the Bottling Maintenance Support Team Lead at Diageo’s Runcorn Beer Packaging Site. After gaining a Master’s in Chemical Engineering from the University of Birmingham, UK, she went to work as a process engineer and then a site maintenance analyst in the oil and gas industry for ExxonMobil before switching to the drinks industry.

“Initially, I hadn’t considered a career in brewing because I thought it wouldn’t use enough of my chemical engineering degree. However, having been inside the industry now for nearly a year, I now know I could not have been more wrong. Yes, there are no towering distillation columns but there are plenty of heat exchangers, compressors and pumps. The industry is also facing one of its most challenging times regarding sustainability, so a background in chemical engineering can be seriously advantageous.

“This sector is very innovative and fast moving. It jumps on ideas for installing the latest technologies and projects, which makes it a very exciting place to work.”

What are the main responsibilities in your current role?

"As the Maintenance Support Team Lead for the Bottling lines there is plenty of responsibility. I’m a role model for championing safety. This includes leading daily engineering job starts, carrying out line walks and being responsible for contactor permits in my area. I have to reduce what we call ‘engineering long stops’ to maximise production. I own and develop the one-, three- and five-year plans for bottling machinery overhauls and CAPEX investments, as well as budget management and cost forecasting. I also use Diageo’s coaching tools to help the wider engineering team gain a problem-solving mindset.

“The biggest aspect of chemical engineering that I use on a daily basis is problem solving. This includes considering whether the initial root cause of a problem marries up with my chemical engineering first principles. Essentially, I do a ‘does this make sense’ check. For example when a problem occurred on site where air had ingressed into a high pressure water system, I realised the source of air had to be of higher pressure than the water. I was able to rule out a number of other potential routes that had been suggested, which saved a significant amount of time investigating the problem.”

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

“Watching improvement ideas come to fruition. From initially developing the solution round the table with a whiteboard and pen, to the detailed engineering designs, to finally implementing the fix. There is no better feeling! It’s also a role where you are on the production floor so really get to see the results first hand.”

How does your role contribute to helping solve society’s grand challenges, such as the sustainable development goals identified by the UN?

“Goal five on the UN list is about gender equality and this is something I am particularly passionate about given that I have worked in two male-dominated industries: oil and gas and now brewing. I am the first female to have been hired onto the site’s Engineering Leadership team and have been part of the interview process to hire the site’s first female apprentice. As part of Diageo’s Society 2030 targets, the company aims to achieve 50% representation of women in leadership roles by 2030, which is incredibly encouraging. I believe you have to be part of the change to make the change, and by having more females onsite this will only actively encourage more females to apply for positions in the future.

“Then there is Goal 12 about responsible consumption and production. It is very encouraging that the site is investing in projects that will reduce reliance on non-sustainable resources such as plastic. Diageo aims for 100% of its packaging to be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2030. As a Maintenance Support Team Lead, I’m heavily linked with these projects and act as the site link between the engineers and project teams. I get to be involved with the initial selection of the projects all the way through to implementation on site. One example of a major project just installed at Diageo Runcorn is the new canning packaging line which will replace all plastic with cardboard, which is sustainably sourced, recyclable and fully biodegradable.

“And there is Goal 14 related to water use. One part of my role is to champion and drive water reduction projects as well as engage the wider engineering team to identify and drive their own water-saving opportunities. Diageo aims to reduce water by 40% in water-stressed areas. One project that I recently installed that contributes to this target is an automated 3-way-valve on the pasteuriser which will save a minimum of 25,000 m³ of water each year.”

Ella Howells: 'you have to be part of the change to make the change'

What are the key challenges in your sector that chemical/process engineers are well equipped to help address?

“There is significantly more focus on sustainability than ever before. That includes water reduction, waste reduction and the pathway to becoming carbon neutral. Chemical and process engineers already have a great understanding of all these basic principles that make us well equipped to help address such challenges. Because it’s not been done before you’ve got to think a little bit outside the box while still providing cost effective solutions.”

What advice would you give to an engineer considering moving into your sector from a different sector?

“Go for it! Change can be scary, especially when you think other people are more experienced than you. However, bringing a fresh set of eyes and a different mindset to a new sector can be just as valuable – or more valuable – than you think. You will also be surprised at how many aspects of your role will be transferable.”

What chemical/process engineering skills are in demand in your sector?

“The key skills that are in high demand are problem-solving techniques, data analysis and project management, as well as all the softer skills such as the ability to lead and motivate a team. Sometimes it’s just looking at a problem differently. Within my first week, I was able to solve a long-standing issue on site regarding beer chilling capacity thanks to my background in pipework. I calculated that the current supply pipework was too small to supply all the beer chillers at once.

“The need for chemical engineering skills in this sector is definitely growing, especially with the demand for more production with new low-alcohol products being introduced into the market.

“Also, in the face of challenging sustainability targets, there are plenty of opportunities for water and waste reduction, additional heat integration and installation of new green technologies that are heavily linked to chemical engineering.”

What do you know now career-wise that would have been handy at the start of your career?

Most graduates will be working for nearly 40 years so you don’t need to be thinking about being the next CEO just yet. Instead focus on learning as much as possible, ask lots of questions and try to make some key improvements. Naturally your experience and knowledge will grow with time, and you will figure out what aspects of the role you enjoy, and which aspects less so. There is always the opportunity to change roles, companies or even sectors later down the line without having to take multiple steps back. Make the most of the opportunities you currently have and the best is yet to come.”

To read more articles in this series visit https://www.thechemicalengineer.com/tags/career-paths/

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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