Four Decades of Success in the Processing Industry: An Interview with Jim Darby

Jim Darby began his career as a Junior Process Engineer and has progressed over the years to achieve a Senior Process Engineer position. Darby began working with Paton Engineers and Constructors in Sarnia, Ontario, and has held his position there for the last two and a half years. Pump Engineer had the pleasure of sitting down with Darby to discuss his experience with pumps and pumping applications over his many years in the industry.
By Brittani Schroeder and Angelica Pajkovic

Jim Darby grew up in small town Cardston, Alberta in a farming family. As a member of Scouts Canada, Darby was always hiking and constructing bridges out of pine trees and rope. He was fascinated by his grade seven study of siphons, and how water could move from one vessel down to another. Later in his youth, his parents moved his family to Calgary, and Darby spent a fair amount of time on the University of Calgary campus learning about their faculties during open houses. He always found great interest in the engineering faculty presentations.

“My brother and I went to a lot of science fairs when we were young. Most were put on by the local Board of Education. We were always fascinated by the way things were put together and my brother even built a digital computer out of old rotary phone equipment once,” Darby recalled. All his experiences from building things as a child led him to choose engineering as his field of study.

Darby has been a Process Engineer from the very beginning. His first position as a Junior Process Engineer was at DuPont Canada. From there he spent a short time at Ethyl Canada before moving onto Polysar/LANXESS, where he spent 27 years honing his many skills. Although he has always been willing to step into other roles when his colleagues needed him to, process engineering is what he likes to focus his attention on.

Day-to-Day Experiences

“There are a lot gray areas between where process ends and instrumentation begins. I provide the process information and the instrumentation engineers provide the information on the instruments and together we determine the best instrument for each job.”

Darby currently works for Paton Engineers and Constructors. Paton’s strong commitment to customer satisfaction and innovation has given them the reputation of being a high-quality engineering house in the industry. Darby is only one of two process engineers on Paton’s staff. “I am working part-time right now as I get ready for retirement, but I am still very involved in the projects. Last year we were working on a shutdown system for a major compressor train, and most of the job was instrumentation, but the final control element was a hydraulic system,” Darby explained. “I had to make sure all the pipes and pumps were designed so that if something went wrong, there would be a quick shutdown so that no further damage could occur.”

Paton Engineers and Constructors is a small firm, so each person helps where they are needed. “Sometimes our business development person will ask me to research and investigate because she is not as well-versed in the process as I am,” said Darby. In these situations, Darby and a colleague would approach a customer to ask them for the key details of a project. Once they had gathered all of the necessary information the pair would bring back the facts to prepare a business proposal. From there, Darby would wait to see where the proposal goes.

Another area Darby works closely with is the instrumentation team. “There are a lot gray areas between where process ends and instrumentation begins,” he explained. “I provide the process information and the instrumentation engineers provide the information on the instruments and together we determine the best instrument for each job.”

Designing the Pump Systems

“Pumps and pipes are my bread and butter,” admitted Darby. When Darby is designing a pump system, he receives all information about the pump from its manufacturer, including characteristics and how much pressure it will hold. “You have to remember that in the case of a positive displacement pump, the pump will keep pushing through the same volume of liquid regardless of what it is bumping up against,” Darby explained. “If the liquid does not have somewhere to go, or if the discharge is blocked, the pump will keep pumping until it eventually breaks the weakest part of the piping system.” As a result of this, his main concern is for the safety of the people working with the pumps.

One of the main issues Darby attempts to prevent is setting up a pump system for customers and having it not work properly when they go to use it. “You go out and build this lovely system, you charge the client all this money, but then they go to press the button and it does not work the way it is supposed to,” said Darby. In order to mitigate the potential that an issue will occur, Darby and his colleagues do a number of checks on every design. These are formalized in company procedures and results in close to error free designs. If an issue does occur, he provides technical support to the operations personal, and helps them go through the whole system to find a solution.

One example of a problem Darby faced was with a pump that required temperature specific operating conditions; the pump needed the temperature of the fluid in the feed drum supplying the pump to be 70°C to have the necessary vapour pressure to generate the necessary suction head for the pump to work properly. As the pump was stationed in Canada, where the winters are sometimes very cold, the pump would not operate properly when it was first started in December. With the colder weather, there was a lot less vapour pressure and so the suction pressure was reduced. The pump was generating the proper total dynamic head but with the reduced suction pressure the discharge pressure was also reduced and there was not enough discharge pressure for the fluid to be pumped to the next vessel. To the operators it looked as if something was wrong with the pump when in actual fact there was something wrong with the conditions in the feed drum for the pump (too low a temperature).

“To solve this problem we heated the feed drum up with some steam, and once we got the drum warm enough the pumps worked fine. Once the whole unit was up and running, new hot material started to flow into the feed drum for the pump and we were able to keep the feed drum at about 70°C; the whole process was effective but it was hard work getting there,” Darby recalled. “It was like getting your car started in the winter mornings; it is hard to warm up the car, but once it is warm it stays that way and runs like a charm.”

A Jack of All Trades

Although he specializes in pumps, Darby has had some interesting experiences with valves throughout his career. “I work with everything that has fluid in it,” Darby explained. “Valves, pumps, pipes, you name it.” One valve related issue Darby had the opportunity to focus on was a situation where a plant had a valve that would close too quickly. “The issue became apparent when a plant technician got splashed by hot water from a pressure relief valve. He had no warning that this was going to happen and fortunately escaped serious injury. I was asked to investigate as there was no indication as to what had caused the pressure spike that caused the pressure relief valve to open.”

The pressure relief valve was in a piping system that was fed by a pump on the other side of the plant about 400 meters away. “After a lot of system analysis, I realized we had water hammer occurring,” Darby recalled. “Looking at all the elements that might cause this, I determined that a valve, about 100 meters away from the pressure relief valve, was able to close quick enough to cause the water hammer. It was the resultant pressure spike that caused the pressure relief valve to open. The valve was closing too quickly, and so I knew we had to slow it down. Working with the instrumentation engineers, we slowed the speed of the valve actuators down to the point the water hammer would not occur.”

In the brief time that Darby worked as an Instrumentation Engineer, he gained significant experience working with valves. One of his principle tasks in this position was to design a control valve. For this he had to gather the pertinent process data, determine what the valve needed to do and specify a valve for this purpose. “It gave me a good appreciation for the difficulties the instrumentation engineers face and it provided opportunities to talk with suppliers and others I would not normally communicate with in my role as a process engineer. If the proper person had designed it, the valve probably would have been a nice compact-looking unit, but the main point is that I got the job done,” Darby admitted.

“The one thing I stress for future end users, though, is whatever you do, it ought to be fun. If it is not you will come to hate your job, which is doing a disservice to yourself and to your employer.”

Giving His Knowledge to Others

When Darby started at Polysar/LANXESS in 1981, the company had over two thousand employees at its Sarnia, ON site. Now the company has under five hundred there. “There used to be a number of large chemical plants here but now it is mostly open ground or grassland,” he said. With the closing of these large plants, engineers have started retiring and taking their years of knowledge with them. Darby revealed that he learned a lot from the engineers that worked around him, and now they have gone down different paths — some have moved away, some have retired, and others, regrettably, have passed away.

“It is quite difficult for a young engineer coming out of university because finding a job is hard in the current market. Companies want to hire someone with expertise, but obviously these recent grads do not have that experience yet. Sometimes they end up taking positions they do not necessarily want,” explained Darby. In an attempt to help emerging engineers choose a career path they are genuinely interested in, Darby tries to transfer as much of his knowledge to the young engineers he works with as possible. He wants them to understand what they are working towards and attempts to give them as many tools as possible to achieve their goals. He does not see the point of having such a large reservoir of knowledge if there is no one to pass it down to. “I have considered writing a book and putting my knowledge down on paper,” Darby admitted. “Maybe my family will read it and see what I have been doing for the last forty years. Maybe new engineers can read it and save themselves time by learning from my time in the industry.”

A Mentor for New Engineers

“I get really motivated by young minds. You never know what could be coming down the tubes next and I feel privileged to get to be able to offer them advice as they make their way into the industry.”

Darby has done a fair bit of mentoring throughout his career. “Students come out of third year from some of the Ontario universities and they need to complete a co-op before they graduate,” he explained. Darby thinks of himself as a mentor or sponsor for these students, especially when they come to him for help on a project. “A young man was a co-op student a few years ago, and we worked together really well while he was here in Sarnia. He went back and graduated, and I did not hear from him for a very long time. Then, I got an email from him asking if he could pick my brain on a few topics, and we got to catch up a bit. It was really great to know that he was doing well in his career,” he recalled. Darby has been used as a reference by many emerging engineers in the industry.

As part of their coursework, engineering students from Western University, in Ontario, who are enrolled in the green chemistry course of studies for chemical engineers are put into teams of three to five and are tasked with fully designing a plant; this includes deciding what product they are going to make and how they are going to make it. “They have to think of safety regulations, the economics of the plant and business, and at the end of the project they prepare a report for grading by their professor. To make it more interesting, they also have to present their design before a panel of judges. The general public are invited to the presentations and the employers here in Sarnia go and attend these presentations because it is a great way to see which students should be hired after graduation,” said Darby. This event includes prize money for the top teams. The total prize money handed out is typically around CAD $20,000.

Darby likes to attend the pitch sessions to listen to the ideas of the younger generation. “I get really motivated by their young minds,” he said. “You never know what could be coming down the tubes next and I feel privileged to get to be able to offer them advice as they make their way into the industry. The one thing I stress for future end users though is whatever you do, it ought to be fun. If it is not, you will come to hate your job which is doing a disservice to yourself and to your employer.”


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