Down not afraid of "doing things the hard way"

Katherine Down

Western Engineering News | January 18, 2013

By Heather Hughes

From tires on a car to a stick of gum, Katherine Down has always been curious about how things are made and what makes them work.

As a Production Engineer in Training, LANXESS Inc. - Olefins Business in Sarnia, Ont., Down feeds her curiosity on a daily basis.

The BESc’12 (Chemical) alumna is fascinated by the development of everyday items you and I take for granted. For example, tires are a result of extracting resources from the ground, processing through a chemicals plant, then manufacturing and shipping sectors, and finally into the hands of drivers.

“I am really attracted to challenging work, and I especially enjoy the opportunity to work at a manufacturing site because the challenges change from day to day,” Down said. “The chemicals industry has been around for a long time, but times are changing. There’s a lot of opportunity, whether it’s managing equipment that’s older than my parents or trying to think of ways to be ‘green.’”

Down is primarily responsible for the technical function and optimization of some of the process units at LANXESS Inc. In particular, she looks after the units that extract and purify butadiene, a chemical used to make polybutadiene rubber, which is a predominate component of tires.

“My day-to-day job is setting production targets, troubleshooting operations, and implementing projects,” Down said. “I also have a large part to play in energy management; I’m constantly analyzing the performance of our systems and finding new and innovative ways to optimize energy usage.

“Safety is also a big part of my job,” she continues. “As the engineer I constantly have to be thinking of how the changes I want to make could impact the safety of my colleagues.”

As a recent graduate, she is eager to expand her knowledge and gain experience. Often this means, “doing [things] the hard way,” since she doesn’t have years of experience under her belt.

“My favourite part about working as a Production Engineer is the day-to-day variety,” she said. “Every day is different; one day everything can be running smoothly and you get to catch up on some project work, and the next day there’s been an upset and you spend the day on your feet solving the problem and working out how to prevent it in the future.”

As a Western Engineering student, Down participated in the internship program between her third- and fourth-year. She was the Process Engineering intern at Imperial Oil’s Nanticoke Refinery, where she provided technical support to the engineering department.

She worked on a variety of projects, including optimizing unit operations and the design of new units. She also had the opportunity to inspect equipment internals and assist in monitoring the shutdown and startup.

Overall, the internship helped Down learn her way around a chemical plant and eased the transition to LANXESS Inc.

Down credits Western Engineering for setting the foundation for her career. The program helped refine her problem-solving skills and encouraged her to be a “social engineer” by participating in student clubs, groups and teams.

“It can be easy to get bogged down in the numbers, but the most valuable thing I learned was to have fun. If you can have fun doing what you do it makes the challenges you face a lot easier to overcome.”

Down might be just starting her career, but she is excited about being part of a company committed to sustainability and energy management.

“I work for a great company that despite it's large, international presence, is really focused on helping each person be the best they can be, in particular by giving employees a lot of responsibility and accountability,” she said. “It motivates me to know that what I'm doing every day really is important to LANXESS as a whole.”