From refineries to robots. Yasmin Ali speaks to Worley's Chris Jansen about his work in robotics strategies development, helping the business get the most out of robotics across the energy, chemicals and resources sectors.
MY NAME is Yasmin Ali and I’m a chemical engineer working in the energy sector. I was originally attracted to study chemical engineering because of the breadth of career opportunities it provides. To showcase this diversity, I will be talking to a range of fellow chemical engineers to find out what they do, how they got there, and why they do it.
For this instalment, I spoke to Chris Jansen, Senior Advisor – Automation at Worley, based in Brisbane, Australia.
Chris leads Worley’s robotics strategies development, helping the business get the most out of robotics across the energy, chemicals and resources sectors. But what, exactly, does that mean?
“It might be robots that bring scaffolding up to help with the construction side of things,” Chris explained.
He gave me another example; sending magnetic crawler robots to inspect the top of stacks or flares instead of having people working at height. As part of the role, Chris manages Worley’s collaborations with different robotics vendors, and works with the data platform team to make sure the data collected by robots is put to the best use.
“It might be utilising artificial intelligence to pick up on defects in wind turbine blades. There’s a lot we can do with the robotic-enabled technology and the data,” Chris told me.
While it's still early days, Chris and his team are looking to build scale in this area for Worley over the coming years.
Chris did not start off in robotics, but in a more traditional chemical engineering role at a BP refinery. Part of the role was in monitoring the performance of the catalytic reactors. He got to know the reactors, and supervised third-party catalyst handling companies when they came in to replace the catalyst, developing an understanding of the operation and the safety hazards involved.
“People are sent into these reactors under a nitrogen environment, as any oxygen causes the catalyst to ignite,” he explained.
At the time, the standard practice was to shut down the reactor, and send people in to vacuum up the material inside, before replenishing with fresh catalyst. A BP thought leadership piece, encouraging the industry to come up with alternatives to sending people into these high-risk environments, sparked Chris’ idea for a catalyst replacement robot.
After leaving BP and upon joining Worley, Chris attended an innovation lunch-and-learn session. The innovation manager encouraged attendees to get involved and submit ideas to Worley's Innovation Council. If the Council liked the idea, it could fund around A$10,000 for development.
“I put two and two together and thought why not put forward this idea of building a robot, not really knowing much about robots.”
Chris was given funding to develop the robot, demonstrating the potential rewards of taking a “why not” attitude. It began as a side project alongside his chemical engineering role. But as the project gained momentum, and prototyping and testing kicked in, Chris became the full-time product manager for the robotic technology, and CAROL (Catalyst Removal Amphirol) was born.
An amphirol is a screw-propelled vehicle, selected to cope with the swamp-like conditions of catalyst in a reactor. The amphibious vehicles can move effectively over this surface, sucking up the catalyst via a vacuum; “a Roomba for chemical engineers” if you like.
Chris’s role involved logistics, commercialisation activities, and marketing to secure business for the robot.
“When it comes to actually going in and delivering a project, it’s about getting the right people in place, making sure the procedures are there, the certification is appropriate, and working with the customer to ensure that the whole operation happens safely,” Chris explained.
Understanding robotics was a challenge for a chemical engineer, but Chris collaborated with robotics manufacturing companies for the core design and build, and engaged a catalyst handling company for some real, hands-on experience. Having the knowledge of what you want the robot to do, and linking up with the right experts, can result in a robot that meets the need, like CAROL.
“The process engineer has the most holistic knowledge of the plant and the different things that are going on… it lends itself for process engineers to get into robotics.”
Keen to get more involved in the strategic direction of large organisations like BP and Worley, Chris recently started studying for an MBA. He is particularly interested in net zero and sustainability aspirations, the digital transformation, and the culture of business.
“What motivates people going into work? I am quite interested to be able to influence that side of things,” he explained.
As well as the full-time job and MBA, Chris and his wife look after their two young boys. Having a global and digital role helps with this.
“The people that work in my team are based in the UK, India, my boss used to be in Calgary, my new boss is in Dubai, so I don’t have a local team,” Chris said.
The hours are not quite nine to five; Chris works for a few hours before breakfast, takes the kids to school, works until school pick up time, and works again later when Europe comes online. This flexibility, which Chris’ teacher wife does not have, allows them to juggle full-time work with childcare.
Looking beyond the MBA and tied into Chris’ interest in net zero and robotics, his attention was grabbed by the University of Bristol’s work on inspection and maintenance of offshore wind platforms. As the installed capacity of offshore wind increases and decarbonises electricity supplies, more offshore wind farms will have to be maintained.
“These are situated in rough seas, where sending crews out is hazardous and expensive,” he said.
The University of Bristol is looking into drone-carrying boats. Near the wind turbine, the drone is dispatched, and delivers an inspection robot to the wind turbine blades, which repairs any damage it detects on the spot. The robot is then picked up by the drone, and moved to the next turbine.
“We’re a little way off, but that’s exciting. Robots that not only inspect, but carry out repairs.”
For more articles in this series, visit https://bit.ly/2DZmjA4
Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.