Conversations with Lionel Loh

By Ryan Tan and Denzel Chen

Lionel Loh is a Technical Section Supervisor at ExxonMobil Chemical Operations Pte Ltd on Jurong Island. Jurong Island is home to many of the biggest names in the petrochemical industry, contributing to a significant share of Singapore’s manufacturing output – and quite naturally, revenue. What is it really like to work in such an industry, and what does his work entail? We speak to Lionel to find out more.

Lionel: As a technical section supervisor, I oversee a team of process engineers whose jobs are to ensure the equipment and systems are running well, and according to design. For example, we look at the day-to-day process monitoring of a unit and help to ensure it is running optimally. We also conduct troubleshooting and systems improvements through the analyses of data.

Within the whole complex, there are many different kinds of engineers and technicians. We have process, mechanical, electrical engineers, all working together to ensure the plant runs well. There are also operations and maintenance teams. Within that context, the technical section engineering teams are the ones that conduct more data analysis. We help to put the data together and provide recommendations and direction in terms of what we need to do for the equipment and units after quantifying and analysing the data.

Lionel: I am a chemical engineer and my training contributes to the work that I do in a petrochemical plant, where I support the necessary chemical engineering processes and controls in my section.  Projects that I  work on include helping to improve energy efficiency and devising ways to optimise the running conditions of certain processes in the plant.

It is different from Research and Development, which leans towards trying to develop new breakthrough technologies. Over at the plant, we do more of the optimisation work and solutions implementation.

Lionel: On a typical workday, we will carry out a morning review of what happened during the previous shift and we look at the areas that require our attention on for the day ahead – and this includes anything that pops up, like equipment that may require any additional monitoring or diagnosis. Additionally, we look at long-term programme improvements that again, aim at improving energy efficiency, the ways we handle various parameters and on how we could improve on such components.

Lionel: It would be the safety culture of my company. When I first joined, the safety culture and strong focus on keeping safe made a big impression on me. We have a lot of management systems to monitor and we continually assess safety risks. Safety is a core value for us, and the commitment is evident across the entire organization.

Lionel: The most fulfilling part of my job is when I see projects that I work on come to fruition. I feel a great sense of satisfaction when I make an effective change and there are results to show for my labour. For example, when I adjusted the amount of nitrogen to increase the drying capability of a unit – I had to think through the ways to design and route the gas to ensure that we get what we want more effectively.  At the end of the day, I see how my design helped to save raw material cost and improved the working of the unit, and helped to increase energy efficiency – that is very fulfilling.

You can also say that I derive much satisfaction from problem solving, and thinking out of the box to conceptualize and implement ideas to address long-term problems. There are always multiple ways of solving a problem and multiple ways to improve a situation. Having that flexibility and openness to put together solutions is exciting.

Our industry is very dynamic. There are so many things that we can do as engineers. In my company, we get rotated to new assignments once every 2 to 3 years and we get to experience different roles. Being an engineer in my company never gets routine or boring!

Lionel: It started when I was still a chemical engineering undergraduate. I took an internship with my company, which made me understand more about engineering. This experience convinced me that engineering was an area that I wanted to progress into. Working in the petrochemical industry is relevant to my field of study so I gravitated towards it.

I was more interested in engineering than in other disciplines like finance. I think at that point in time, there was a lot of hype on engineering, and especially the overall petrochemical industry as it is a big area of growth for Singapore. The potential career prospects were exciting. The fact that there is a lack of engineers in Singapore means there are plenty of career opportunities.

But of course, there is more to engineering. It is a unique profession where you are being challenged to think creatively and innovatively, to solve problems.

Lionel: I was worried because I had no idea what engineering was when I was in school. ‘Engineering’ is such a big word – what does it actually mean? I was actually concerned that I didn’t exactly know what I was heading into. As it turns out, there are a lot of things you see in your job that you don’t learn in school. But, being open and willing to learn and explore on the job helped to accelerate my involvement on my development as an engineer. There are also many people who were willing to teach me new concepts as I went along.

Lionel: One example I can think of is that we have this deployment of what we call the formulation of energy variables into the system. So what we look at is that we look at the overall optimisation or process parameters of the unit and then after that, we deploy actual alerts that help our operations team tweak accordingly. And that can help us save millions of dollars in the amount of energy we use. It may start with just applying specific formulae in the system, but with everyone along the way contributing their part, you save a whole lot at the end of the day.

Lionel: Engineering is sometimes misunderstood as a discipline. Many people, myself included, tend to think that engineering focuses only on equipment, and that it is all about you and the equipment. But, that is not true. From my experience and in my work environment, engineering also involves a lot of teamwork. There is no one person that can solve a single issue. You need to work with a lot of people who are experts in their own craft. Coming together as a collective team, being able to communicate with them and being able to understand what the root cause of the problem is, requires us to put our heads together to solve that problem – that is what people don’t get to see until they get into the manufacturing or engineering sector.

Lionel: When I took engineering up as a course, I was clueless. Along the way, I started to realize that engineering is a lot more about getting in touch with the people, putting the heads together to look at the problem, and looking at how we can better solve the problem.

Lionel: Work-life balance is what each of us defines it to be. I am glad that I can provide for my family, spend time with them and do certain activities together. There are times where work gets more hectic, and it requires more time and urgent attention. I try always to strike that balance. The other part of work-life balance is being able to keep active and do my bit for the community. In that regard, my company has a lot of community outreach programmes that we participate in with our families too.

Lionel: One major difficulty was the initial steep learning curve. Transitioning from a student to a young professional in the engineering sector requires you to pick up a lot of skills in a short amount of time. I remember that I needed to sharpen my skills at troubleshooting, communicating and in influencing and negotiating. It’s important to be able to get others to align their priorities with yours. Such demands can be very daunting for a young graduate. It took me a while to get calibrated, and pick up the skills I needed. I was fortunate to have had very good mentors that helped to guide me along the way.

Lionel: Internships would be the best way to get into the job, understand the culture, and at the same time, have a feel of how things work in the industry or the company. This is especially important for an engineering job. Because of its technical nature, being able to relate to the process or the equipment as a first insight is really helpful.

And, on the side, I think YouTube videos are very good if you are very interested in some of the processes or equipment. Watching these videos can give you an appreciation of how such equipment work and help you draw the link between them and the processes. It is helpful that way.

Lionel: You need to communicate clearly and effectively  because there is a lot of teamwork involved. Very naturally, you also have to be a good team player. There is no one solution that fits all and you have to be able to listen and be willing to share. Having logical and analytical thinking also helps, as they are essential to your troubleshooting ability.

Lionel: My word of advice is that they should be open, willing to continuously learn and develop. That is what is important to succeed. Even for those who aren’t thinking about engineering, give engineering a thought! Engineering also really allows you to be creative and to bring new ideas and solutions to a problem. It certainly makes for a very challenging yet fulfilling and rewarding career.

I hope people can understand the petrochemical industry more. It is as interesting as it is important! Nobody actually appreciates how our energy or a lot of our daily products comes about. It actually takes a lot of technology, effort and focus to get fuel and petrochemical products that people use every day.  Petrochemicals, being derivatives of crude oil, also extend to other products like plastics that we develop to extend the shelf life of the fresh produce we have and plastics that we use in our cars to make them more lightweight and energy-efficient. They exist all around us. All these are part of petrochemicals – they go into improving lives and standards of living.