The Industrial Revelation

September 30, 2020

By: Yusuf Whitaker and Khattab Al Amin

Structural engineering is a profession that has a tremendous impact on our surroundings and is evident in everyday life for almost all Americans. People get in their cars, drive across bridges to their office building where they will spend twenty-five percent of their week, all designed to not collapse by structural engineers. Your run-of-the-mill office building and the bridge you cross are some of the more noticeable products of your neighborhood structural engineer. But what about some of the other things we design for you?

Manufacturing and industrial operations are not as apparent to most people. Plants tucked away well off the interstate in small towns are not at the top of people’s minds when structural engineering is mentioned. These plants are typically jungles of steel, piping, ducting, ventilation stacks, and plenty of process equipment with seemingly no architectural theme or design and typically that is because an architect was not involved or had a very minor role. It’s practically purely engineering design driven by processes, functionality, and almost never beauty (except in the eye of the engineer, maybe). The design process starts with a collaborative meeting between the owner and the engineering team to determine the plant’s needs, what processes will be required, what equipment is needed by the plant and how they will be accessed and interact with other equipment, and any potential problems they foresee. From there, the design team can begin to piece together an understanding of how the processes need to work together to perform for the client most efficiently, and from there a design is created.

Structural engineering in an industrial setting often takes place in existing plants as they look to expand, add equipment, or look to verify the adequacy of old existing structures, but the overall outline of the design process remains the same with few exceptions. These renovations or additions typically are very heavy in mechanical and electrical engineering where the structural engineers will act in a supporting role. We work closely with other engineering disciplines to provide structural supports, platforms, openings, foundations, and anything needed to help make the mechanical and electrical teams a success.

Renovations in a manufacturing or industrial plant need to happen fast, from design to construction, to keep the plant operational and profitable. These renovations and additions must be constructible around existing processes, and the designs must integrate flawlessly with existing processes. To achieve this, a strong relationship is needed between the design team and the contractor. The structural engineer needs to be open and ready to change designs on the fly to fit the contractor’s needs. Fast paced schedules a contractor may be limited to certain steel members that one of their suppliers keeps in stock, or it may make more sense for a contractor to use screw anchors to fasten a baseplate instead of anchors cast in the concrete.

Schedule for any job is arguably just as vital to the success of a project as budget. In an industrial setting, it can mean the difference between making greater profits, or losing out on more production capacity. Projects within a fully functional facility often must be worked around plant shutdowns or other periods of time when production is slowed or not active. This can require that the design team deliver different portions of design at different times, or even pushing long hours in the office to get designs completed to keep progress moving forward. It’s about devising a solution that helps the team meet the client’s schedule.

Above all, a structural engineer in the industrial world needs to identify their own problems and quickly act to solve them. A layout is not often provided to us on day one and the scope is not given to us, it must be figured out by the engineer through networking with the clients and all engineering disciplines involved.