Ask an Engineer

Describe Your Job. – Medical Device Process Engineering – Lots of Variety in Production, in the Lab, in Meetings and at my Desk

Posted on November 13, 2011. Filed under: Describe Your Job |

I’m currently a senior bio-engineering co-op in an endoscopy division of a medical device company, where I do process engineering work.  It is my job to assist coworkers who are continually implementing, improving, and ensuring successful production of a medical device.  My job includes updating product information to keep it current with production, analyzing data and applying it to product improvement, and developing a new process to be used on the production line.  I also support the R&D department by gathering information or completing tasks, as required.

Like many production sites, we have an office area and a production floor. While I have a desk up in the office area, by no means can I always be found there. When I come in, I usually spend a little time at the computer getting caught up on emails and other clerical tasks. I only spend about half of my day at my desk updating paperwork, updating information within our electronic document storage system, or doing statistical analyses and reporting. The other half of my day is usually spent away from my desk measuring product, making samples, or other things that require me to use resources around the facility. I don’t like being confined to my desk, so it is welcoming to work with people located in other areas.

To date, I haven’t had a day that has been the same as the previous day. Often times I have similar tasks, but nothing has been too repetitive. My time is split between my desk, the production floor, the testing lab, and meetings with various people. It is also worth mentioning that people in the various departments are nice and down to earth, which makes them usually very willing to cooperate and help me complete my assignments. This aids in my development and growth as a professional engineer.

One of  my greatest challenges as a co-op has been transitioning from an unknowing outsider to a full time employee in a short matter of time.  This requires learning all the names of acronyms, software, vendors, materials, or engineering terms that are unique to a particular company, but used in everyday speech by the staff. Since co-ops and internships last for such a limited time, it sometimes feels like it’s the end of your rotation before you finally get a complete grasp on the workings of a company. Co-ops and interns  have just as much of a right to know what is going on as everyone else, so it’s important to ask for clarification any time something is unfamiliar. During a previous rotation with a different company, I struggled greatly with finding the courage to ask questions every time I didn’t know something. I came to realize that asking questions doesn’t make you look any less intelligent; in fact, it helps your job performance because you’re more aware of what you’re doing and more importantly, why you’re doing it.  I’m still hesitant to ask questions sometimes, but my experience and the people I work with have certainly helped me overcome this challenge.

Although I’ve only been in my job for ten weeks,  I’ve fallen in love with the industry, the company, and my job. The medical device industry is especially important because of its promise of providing better products, processes, and treatments for healthcare. Almost everything within the field is dedicated to saving peoples’ lives and improving the quality of life for people everywhere. I like my company because of the way it emphasizes quality and the way it reaches out to its employees. Whether it’s through employee appreciation days, good health and wellbeing events, or even just the continual reminders of the quality statement, my company really makes sure employees know how their work benefits everyday people. In turn, higher quality products are made by happy and willing employees. Such dedication to preaching and maintaining the beliefs held by the quality statement can be found few other places. With my job, I often get to interact with product builders who are directly responsible for building the high quality products. It is great to interact with them and see their finished products on a daily basis and knowing that they will be used to significantly help people.

There are really only two things that I haven’t liked so far. As with other big corporations, my company is located in many different sites across the country and around the globe. As with the product I am working on, the R&D and production sites for a particular product are not at the same location. Most communication is done over the phone or by email between sites. I think it would be better to have everyone working on a particular product to be at a single location. However, this is the tradeoff with working for a big corporation compared to working for a smaller start-up company. The second thing that I haven’t liked as much about this co-op experience is something not related to the company itself. Due to limited living options close to work, I live a little over an hour away from work and have to make the commute every day. Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation, especially considering the money that I’m pouring into the oil business. However, I prefer commuting an hour each day to a job that I love over living five minutes way from a job that I hate. Luckily, my company and my fellow co-workers make me want to come into work every morning. That’s something that can’t be said about every company and every job!


 [jb1]This job isn’t biotech.

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Describe Your Job. – Stinky Pulp Mill, Busy Paper Mill and Quiet Engineering Department

Posted on November 13, 2011. Filed under: Describe Your Job |

When I was a co-op student, I worked at a pulp and paper mill in Wisconsin that produced paper towels, toilet tissue, and facial tissue. In the pulp mill, logs were transformed into pulp through de-barking, chip-making, and processing with chemicals, heat, and mechanical action. The pulp was then pumped to the paper mill, where it was further processed and made into the various types of paper on very large papermaking machines. As a chemical engineer, the processes in the pulp mill were very interesting to me, but I was not at all enthusiastic about the working environment there. Pulp mills are notorious for emissions of foul smelling sulfur compounds, and that pulp mill was no exception.

I was happy that my assignments were in the paper mill and engineering department instead of the pulp mill. During one rotation in the paper mill, I had several different projects: I tested a chemical additive that reduced the need of a more expensive chemical additive; I monitored processes on a daily basis and reported on them at morning meetings; and I wrote process upset reports based on my investigation of process problems. In that job, I spent most of my day on the manufacturing floor checking on things, interacting with staff, and solving problems. In a plant that runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, there is always something important to be done. In contrast, during my next rotation, my assignments in the engineering department involved more time spent at my desk, where I managed projects such as developing a computer model of the paper drying process, specifying and ordering equipment, and planning equipment installations. The desk job was quieter and gave me more time to concentrate on in-depth problems, but I missed the physical activity and energy of being on the manufacturing floor.

My greatest challenge was learning how to communicate effectively, which I accomplished by learning to ask the right questions, learning how to write memos and reports, and learning how to contribute at meetings. As an engineering student, I was happy I didn’t need to take many writing classes. However, I later realized how a strong foundation in writing is necessary in order to communicate well. Moreover,poor communication can lead to BIG problems while excellent communication can increase efficiency and reduce problems. As engineers, we want to solve problems and not cause them by our poor communication.

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What’s Your Field? – Tissue Engineering in Space/Medical Devices

Posted on September 30, 2011. Filed under: What's Your Field? |

When I was in high school and considering careers, I thought I wanted to be a Broadway star or an astronaut.  Because I was really good at school, but never got a lead role in a play, I realized that I would be more successful in reaching my goal to be an astronaut.  This was a big step that most people don’t make – to understand the difference between a profession and a hobby.  Theatre is still my hobby.

As a senior, I visited Purdue a few times when they hosted engineering days.   I then considered the different engineering majors that I could pursue to be an astronaut.  Later I decided that if I were an aeronautical engineer, I would design the rockets, but I wouldn’t necessarily fly on them.  Since I really wanted to fly on them, I decided that I should know about the experiments that fly on the spacecraft.  That was one reason I chose Biomedical Engineering – so that I could design and run experiments in space.  Also, I got a hand-out from Purdue that discussed Tissue Engineering as one field in Biomedical Engineering.  Tissue Engineering is a field in which engineers know about biology, medicine, and engineering to design and grow living tissues and organs in the laboratory so that people who need organ transplants can get an organ.  That sounded great!  One of my friends in high school had juvenile diabetes, and he asked me to make him a new pancreas.

When I was in college, I was a co-op student at NASA and got to do the experiments that would go up in space.  I also learned that I would need a PhD to be a NASA scientist or astronaut.  So I earned my PhD in Bioengineering doing Tissue Engineering, where I grew blood vessels in a Petri dish.  Now I work on medical devices that deliver drugs while implanted inside of people.  My degrees have given me many opportunities, and some day, I hope that I will get to fly in space and run my experiments on tissues and drugs.

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What’s Your Field? – Optical Engineering/Cool Applications

Posted on September 30, 2011. Filed under: What's Your Field? |

I chose my engineering field more or less on a whim.  Originally, I was going to pursue an Engineering Physics major since I didn’t really know what kind of engineering I preferred.  After visiting the Engineering Physics Department’s website, I discovered another engineering field within this same department: Optical Engineering.  Having never heard of Optical Engineering before, I became intrigued and began reading about it. I soon learned that Optical Engineering covered a broad range of really interesting topics such as lasers, holograms, x-rays, imaging, fiber optics, electro-optics, and more.  At this point I decided to head down the Optical Engineering path because it had so many cool applications.

Another great part about this career path is the never ending new technologies and breakthroughs. This isn’t a career where you do “the-same-old-same-old.” There are always new challenges to see how far we can push the limits, and that never gets boring!

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What’s Your Field? – Mechanical Engineering/Solving Problems Every Day

Posted on September 30, 2011. Filed under: What's Your Field? |

I have always been obsessed with how things work and why things work the way they do.  Thanks to an awesome high school teacher, I found that physics could explain a lot about the interactions between things.  Through physics, I was also introduced to a lot of concepts that I had never noticed before – like how rolling a bouncy ball off the table at the same time as dropping another one from the same height will end in  both hitting the floor at the same time, even if the mass is different. (That experiment is definitely one you need to try!)  When choosing a college major, I lucked out by choosing Mechanical Engineering. I knew that I didn’t want to focus on literature, and I knew I was good at math.  Engineering turned out to be an entire degree based on learning how to solve problems.   In engineering you learn how to analyze a problem and a systematic way of thinking to come to a solution.  It is up to the individual to draw on her experiences and personal creative flair within the framework of that systematic method to develop innovative and unique solutions.

I LOVE ENGINEERING!  In my current position as a Manufacturing Engineer, so many problems pop up every day, some of them big and some of them small. Each one unique and each one needing someone to ask, “Why is this happening?” and “What has changed?”  That’s where I come in.  I have the opportunity to determine why something has happened and gather data to prove why or how the problem occurred.  I do not always work by myself; each problem increases what I know by teaming with the people in my area.  Although I am early in my career, I see myself staying in engineering for a long time to come.  My job just fits my personality.  My job has so many different avenues that I have yet to experience, and I look forward to learning about all of them.

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Why Engineering? – It’s down to earth

Posted on September 13, 2011. Filed under: Ask an Engineer, Why Engineering? |

In one way or another, I have always been interested in science.  When I was in elementary school, my goal was to be an astronaut.  But I quickly realized that if I couldn’t stomach riding roller coasters, then taking trips in the Space Shuttle probably wasn’t an ideal career path for me. I stuck with my ambition to be near the stars, however, and set my sights on being an astrophysicist.  My plan was to get a degree in physics and then continue my studies in a doctoral program.  By my last semester of college, I realized that I wasn’t cut out for a graduate level program in Physics. 

There weren’t many companies hiring Physicists at the time, especially those with just a Bachelor of Science degree.  Since I was pretty good at programming computers and wiring up circuits and engineers were able to find good paying jobs, I thought about becoming an engineer.  Fortunately, my college had an agreement which allowed the transfer of all my math and science credits to the University of Kentucky’s Engineering School, where I majored in Electrical Engineering. 

Two years later, I had degrees in  Electrical Engineering and Physics.  I don’t regret my decision.  I still sit on my deck and look at the stars, but I know this is where I am meant to be.

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Why Engineering? – For the challenges and rewards

Posted on September 13, 2011. Filed under: Ask an Engineer, Why Engineering? |

My two main interests in school were math and science. Of my science courses, I especially enjoyed the study of  biology.  I knew I either wanted to  become an engineer or a veterinarian.  I was able to learn more about the life of a veterinarian when my family’s vet graciously offered for me to shadow him.  In his veterinary practice, he cared for small and large animals and he worked extremely long hours, to say the least.  This experience helped me decide that the vet field definitely wasn’t for me, especially if I wanted to have a family (which I did).  So, I went back to the engineering option. There are many engineers in my family, and it just seemed natural fit for me.  My mom tells a story of when I was 4 years old and she found me upstairs, where I had taken a radio apart.  Some things are just meant to be, I guess.  Knowing that I would be able to make a nice living as an engineer was an added plus.  Engineering has proven to be the challenging and rewarding career that I hoped it would.

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Why Engineering? – Three degrees in one

Posted on September 13, 2011. Filed under: Ask an Engineer, Why Engineering? |

I approached my senior year of high school uncertain of what path I would pursue in college.  That I would attend college was a given, as this was the mid 70’s and my parents had instilled the value of education in me throughout my childhood .  Both of my parents set an example by pursuing continuing education.  My dad obtained an associate’s degree via correspondence courses (yes, this was before computers and the internet) while my mom attended continuing education offered through the local community college.

At my high school, I was blessed to have the support of a counselor and three teachers who each thought that I ought to major in their specific subject (math, chemistry and physics).  Mid-year, my classmates and I were discussing our college plans before class started – the guy sitting in front of me told me that he was going into engineering.  He went on to explain that he had an uncle who was an engineer and that he knew engineers make great money.  I could tell where his focus was!  However, he did know enough  to tell me that if I chose Chemical Engineering, I could combine my math, physics and chemistry interests in ONE degree.  That was the deciding point for me even without knowing anything else about engineering.  No way was I doing a triple major!   

That year my high school graduated four students who went to college to pursue degrees in engineering:   two females and two males.  Even though my high school was one of the largest in the state, the four of us were the first students to choose engineering as a course of study.  The other female enrolled in Bioengineering with the intentions of going to medical school. Later, she changed her mind and remained in the engineering field.  The guy who told me about engineering changed his major to grain science and milling.  The other male has remained in the Mechanical Engineering field and now owns his own company. 

Prior to starting classes at my college, I did examine engineering more by attending the  engineering sponsored open house.  Engineering Open House was (and remains) a large event at my college with many booths, competition between the departments, a parade, and a banquet.  I also attended a girls-only Saturday event for students interested in majoring in engineering and science.

Looking back, I am glad I participated in the coop program offered by my college.  I chose to work for a non-traditional Chemical Engineering company and was able to experience the variety of work available to those with an  engineering degree.  Throughout my career, I have worked in the following areas:

  • pilot plant waste water treatment facility
  • implementation of hazardous waste requirements and material safety data programs
  • painting booths (for large equipment)
  • molding of o-rings
  • environmental exposure (sand and salt)
  • washing tanks (removal of machining fluids during manufacture of subassemblies)
  • molding of plastics (nylon and other polymers – for fishing line, toothbrushes, and computer plastics)
  • large scale batteries (65+ pounds).

Because of my early job assignments, I seriously considered making Environmental Engineering  my field of concentration.  I held those positions in the late 70’s when many environmental regulations were being passed and brought into the work place for the first time.  My current area of focus, large scale batteries,  suits my personality well because there is a  HUGE emphasis on quality and doing things right the first time. 

Make sure you consider the possibilities and the variety of options available to you as an engineer.

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Why Engineering? – Because I like math and science

Posted on September 13, 2011. Filed under: Ask an Engineer, Why Engineering? |

During my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I decided on science and math as subject areas to study in college.  By the time I was a senior in high school, I chose to pursue engineering at Purdue.   However, I was also interested in the life sciences,  especially anatomy and physiology. While earning a degree in Electrical Engineering and a masters in Computer Engineering, I  took courses in Biomedical Engineering,  anatomy and physiology.

I would have preferred to pursue a degree in Biomedical Engineering , but in the mid 1980’s the job opportunities were not as abundant as they are now for Biomedical Engineers.  Although I have worked in the defense industry my whole career, I am always still looking at job opportunities in Biomedical Engineering.  I think the skills I attained as an engineer in the defense industry are very transferable to the Biomedical Engineering field.

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Why Engineering? – It’s interesting

Posted on September 13, 2011. Filed under: Ask an Engineer, Why Engineering? |

When I was in high school, I gravitated toward math and science courses.  During my junior year, I had a very dynamic chemistry teacher who immediately sparked my interest in Chemical Engineering the day he mentioned it.  I absolutely loved the chemistry class because the subject matter was extremely interesting.  I also enjoyed the optional course devoted only to lab experiments, which pulled in aspects of math and physics.  I remember going home and announcing to my parents that I was going to become a Chemical Engineer.  Until that moment, they had never even heard of the field!

Although I briefly considered becoming either a chemist or a pharmacist, neither of those professions had the same appeal to me as engineering.  The engineering courses were not the easiest, but the sense of accomplishment was well worth the effort.

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