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Being bold in processing, adding real strength to the nation!


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Andy Grove - Intel’s Employee No. 3 – is not as well-known perhaps as Gordon Moore –Intel’s Employee No.1 – but TIME magazine when celebrating 50 years of the semiconductor chose Andy Grove as their choice for Man of the Year in 1997. Adorning the cover of TIME is usually a high honor. Andy Grove is a Chemical Engineer who made a singular contribution to the semiconductor industry and the resulting digital revolution. His life story is a rags-to-riches story and quite an unbelievable fable and it has been stated that if not for the fact that the stories are all true the whole life journey sounds more like fiction. Starting from Hungary and surviving both the Nazi occupation as well as the Soviet subjugation he endured being a Jew and finally found his way to the United States. It is said that his first inclination had been journalism but finding that one has to bend his work as per the ideologies of the political masters – sounds familiar? – he switched to the more exact arena of sciences and went on to become a chemical engineer. During his first decade as the CEO of Intel he spearheaded the growth of Intel’s revenue from $ 3000 to $ 21 billion - no mean achievement. It is quite interesting that he attributed his method of management to the fundamental tenants of chemical engineering – outputs, measurable and flow. Chemical engineering is defined by some as the bridge between invention and business and that is exactly what Andy delivered to Intel. I highlight this aspect because in Sri Lanka the profession of Chemical Engineering is so poorly understood even though we are seeking development and are in the second decade of the 21st Century. The ignorance prevailing in Sri Lanka is indeed baffling! From an individual to an industry a popular correlation that we use in teaching is that the development of a country is indicated by the number of sulphuric acid plants in the country. This simple statement may be found to be little different today in light of some of the recent developments yet the basic concept is still quite applicable. Sulphuric acid is one of the three globally traded chemicals as this basic material is at the base of hundreds of products that we use today – from fertiliser and textiles to metals and water treatment. Sri Lanka has moved on from having one plant to none at this stage and as such our ‘development’ status has to be viewed with a certain degree of scepticism if we understand this correlation. Indeed an analysis would indicate that this conclusion has its merits. The global chemical industry though is not immediately visible to the ordinary citizen, as the consumer usually of the chemical industry being the chemical industry itself, is a trillion dollar sector and perhaps the most important industry sector as fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals are all components of this industry. The message is how we create a chemical process industry. With the passage of time through inactivity and stifling growth it is indeed quite challenging for Sri Lanka to embark on the establishment of a vibrant CPI sector from nothing. Yet one could state as I am doing now that thinking along the lines of the impossible perhaps is not so much dreaming the impossible as the possibilities when outlined demonstrate some interesting opportunities. Little analysis should reveal the potential benefits that would accrue if we dare to process. Perhaps the cudgel has to be taken up by those growing up rather than the grown up because for those who have moved on through an era of simple ROI calculations and a ‘cannot be done mentality’ it is difficult to be mobilised by this type of idea due to the nature of the challenge in comprehending the possibility. COMPASS 2015 Hence the pitch that I made at the COMPASS 2015 event of the Chemical Engineering Student Society of the University of Moratuwa held last week at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute. The industry too was in attendance and the event was addressed by DIMO CEO Ranjith Pandithage – a chemical engineer. At COSTI We had been looking at balanced provincial development and it is quite evident when analysing the data the prominent contribution made by the western province and that through services. However, we feel that much more can be done with proper science and technology infusion and adding value to resources and believing in the transformation potential across the country. Most of our chemical and process engineering graduates find employment outside Sri Lanka and it is at times frustrating to see the lack of understanding that prevails and as such limited opportunities to use this specialised knowledge and the systems approach so fundamental to process engineering. In the United Kingdom today Chemical Engineering is the fastest growing engineering enrolment among engineering fields and also interestingly the highest salaried engineering occupation. The latter is applicable in other developed economies too. The current complexities in the world and also in parallel the needs demand talent from this area and demand is driving enthusiasm. However, blindly following an occupation because of a potential salary is not to be recommended as one should engage in and contribute from an area that one is happy to be engaged in. Blindly following the pack is a sure way to be a mediocre person contributing very little. A picture can be painted across Sri Lanka with potential process industries based on existing resources and emerging sciences. This is a list of process industries (food industry included) that can be considered to be anchored on to a regional resource and potential. The opportunity canvas takes into account the current presence of activities too but considers technology and idea infusion in creating a real provincial industry type as a beacon. I present as a figure the slides that were presented at COMPASS. An analysis should indicate the significant potential one could derive not only locally but regionally if one is to convert the concept to reality. For sure, a great deal of commitment, coordination and persistence is necessary and also the development could be staggered. The list could form part of a grand industrialisation drive though the scale needs to be carefully evaluated. There was a time when Sri Lanka used to think in terms of the largest factory in the region and such thinking is unwise. Again in some areas definitely the economies of scale will come into play. Today, Process Industry is not simply about large processing complexes as process miniaturisation is an innovative strategy that is followed. Such developments enable countries like Sri Lanka to develop their potential in this area which up to that point had been almost impossible. Within the diagrams presented I have not matched a particular province with an industry but would like to challenge the reader to engage in a search process to drive linkages. As this is a list of industry sectors with the Sri Lankan provincial map on one side much more detailed analysis can go in. The challenge which I placed in front of ‘the growing up’ student community was to place such opportunities for analysis into student projects and design projects which include techno-economic analysis. Student activities can be factored into the national development process which at this time is quite dissociated. Present student projects are mainly done with the concept of fulfilling examination requirements and once fulfilled only add to the paper load on book shelves or fill up cupboard space. It is vital that the university-government-industry nexus is developed, strengthened and promoted.               There had been many examples of externally sourced reports pertaining to process industry projects which can easily be done within the university system. Currently two Chemical and Process Engineering departments exist within the universities of Moratuwa and Peradeniya. The University of Jaffna is to have a program with a mix of mechanical and chemical engineering. They can contribute heavily to this process. When one has these capabilities of heavy and fine manufacturing and the associated automation and clean technology, the nation is surely to be positioned differently. To give an idea let us look at the per capita income as at stands today for India – 1498.87 USD in 2013.The same data for Sri Lanka is a more impressive – 3279.89 USD for 2013. This means in terms of simple arithmetic that Sri Lanka is twice as rich compared to India on a per capita basis, interesting indeed. Perhaps we should offer some help to India on how to improve the situation. Will we be taken seriously? The answer would be no. Our per capita hides our inabilities. Let us understand this and seriously rise up to the challenge of changing. Thinking that life is well and on track through this one statistic demonstrates a lack of proper understanding. (The writer is a Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.)

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