Someone Has to Build It: An Engineer Reflects on his Career
Over his 45 years of service at Fluor, Ron Merrick witnessed profound changes across the oil & gas industry, including the standardization of piping and valves and a dramatic increase in digital technology in project planning & management.
Valve World caught up with Mr. Merrick as he begins retirement to ask about his observations on the industry.
By Daniel Sweet
After 45 years in the oil & gas industry, what do you see as one of the biggest differences between “now-and-then”?
“I started my career with Fluor (quite literally—I was interviewed right out of school) as a piping engineer. My main responsibilities were in writing specifications and descriptions, not so much piping design. The work was challenging and introduced me to a lot of content I was unaware of, so I was happy to stay on in this capacity for so long. One major difference that strikes me between now and then is project duration. When I first started in the 1970s, typical projects lasted three to four years. Now, we do similar assignments in about half that time. You see, so much had to be done by hand. Computer processing was done on a mainframe, for example, so you would have to go down to the key punch machine and build the punch cards yourself before moving forward with a project. Even simple tasks, like compiling a bid tab, used to require two to four collators. Now these kinds of tasks can be automated, and a lot of the basic mathematical operations required for projects can be accomplished in one spreadsheet.
As a result of all this processing power we have at our disposal, we need less engineers per project, allowing companies to take on more assignments. Throughout my early career, the average project used to require 12 to 15 material or spec engineers. Today, even a large project will only require three to five engineers in this discipline. These engineers still get the same intellectual challenge, but the grunt work and the inefficiencies are gone. There are more significant changes as well, beyond computing power. The manufacturers of valves, for example, have changed in their approach, and that is due in large part to standardization.”
You were an early proponent of standardization. How has it changed the valve industry?
“Years ago, a lot of manufacturers took the approach of making whatever the client wanted.
But now the manufacturers are geared to produce API-standard valves, or valves that are designed in accordance with ISO guidelines. There are of course variations on trim and other things, but in the past the manufacturer was often starting with a blank slate. Now leading manufacturers have a standard product that you can still customize, but in the first place they are all produced in the same way. End users are getting more used to this and to planning around standardization. In this way it is a cycle: as manufacturers standardize their product, end users become used to incorporating standards at the planning stages. And as end users come to plan for standardized products, manufacturers must continue to produce valves that are accredited and certified. I like to put it this way: in the past, everything was different unless it happened to be the same; now, everything is the same unless it has to be different.”
Ron with a bronze nameplate, now in the Fluor corporate collection. “The backstory is that this plate was in the Fluor Houston office during the eighties. I believe this was presented to a Fluor piping manager in the sixties or seventies, at the conclusion of a successful project. I adopted this artifact and took it with me through my many office moves, until Fluor Corporate asked various offices if they had something historic that could be displayed at the headquarters office.
Going back, how did you come to focus on standardization and on valves in particular?
“Fluor has always maintained a position called material engineering, and I was always more interested in this aspect over design. That got me started on Fluor’s material side. As part of the material system, Fluor maintains a master catalog that records piping, fittings, and other specialty items. It is basically a database that can be utilized by material engineers. And there came a time in the 1980s when some of the people who were working on this system retired. I took over the piping catalog, becoming the specialist, and I maintained the position for many years. I spent so much time as a valve specialist traveling to valve manufacturers. So I have visited manufacturers in a large number of countries, and of course a lot of these companies know me well. One of the advantages of this is that leading valve manufacturers from all over the world have started to come to the API meetings in the last 10 years, and I had the advantage of already knowing many of these guys.”
Will you continue working after your retirement with API and other industrial bodies?
“Yes, though of course in the current environment it is hard to meet in person. Nonetheless, I am still a member of the various valve committees within ASME, I am still a member of API’s valve standard task force. The same goes for ISO. So I am still associated with all these organizations, and I intend to continue with them. I have known senior engineers who have retired from active employment but are still very interested in the state-of-the-art and in advancing technology. And I figure I can do that as well, for as long as I can still get around.”
“In the past everything can be different unless it happens to be the same, where now everything is the same unless it has to be different.”
Do you think it is important for older engineers to give back to the industry?
“Definitely—the knowledge gap in the valve business—and in engineering in general—is a problem. On top of this, the current business environment (affected by COVID-19 and other factors, ed.), is making things worse. People in their late career who might normally wait a little longer before retiring are opting out earlier, taking their knowledge with them. So it is important for more experienced engineers to remain engaged, but I am also hopeful for the future due to the increased use of knowledge bases. One of the major differences between now and a few years ago is electronic knowledge sharing. Fluor has a knowledge base where people from around the world in various departments and offices can ask questions. Someone senior will then give them a suggestion or an answer, and the answer is available to other users as well. So you can search to see if your question, for example, has been asked, and throughout the whole process institutional knowledge is being recorded for the future. In that way I think it is easier now to pass along information than it used to be. Of course, I think the need is greater, because a large number of experienced people is retiring, but most large engineering companies have similar knowledge sharing systems. It reminds me of my days in Saudi Arabia: when I was working on a project there in 1979. If I asked a question of the head office, it might take six weeks to get an answer. And now you can get an answer overnight, because it is available to you over the network!”
Ron Merrick is a model train enthusiast. He is planning to devote more attention to this hobby now he is retired. “In addition to staying on with the industrial bodies I previously mentioned, I plan on dedicating my time to this hobby. I’m even having a building built in Wichita where I can construct a large model train layout!”
Sounds like an interesting experience. What were you doing in Saudi Arabia?
“The client was Saudi Aramco, through at the time it was owned by a consortium of four oil companies, before it was purchased by the state. The project was called the Saudi Arabian gas program. I had been working for 3.5 years in the design office at Fluor, and I had worked a few smaller projects. When I was given the opportunity to help with a world-class construction project in Saudi Arabia, I jumped at the chance. This was an environmental project in a sense: the main purpose of the project was to capture gas that was being flared for sale to the domestic market. It allowed citizens in Saudi Arabia and nearby countries to convert their homes from burning firewood to burning cooking gas. Beyond this, the project also influenced the industrialization of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. That is because the project allowed Saudi Aramco to move on from gas capture and enabled them to build many other industrial projects that took the gas and made something of it, for example separating ethane to make ethylene in crackers, or making polyethylene. Quite a large number of derivatives were possible thanks to our efforts, and this program really led to the greater industrialization of the Middle East. At that time, Saudi Arabia was very far away from my home base, and you had to have a lot of courage to take an assignment like that. Not so much because it was dangerous, but because it was so far away from North America, and communication back then was not like it is now. I used to say that it was like joining the army: despite initial reservations, once you came back, you realized that you had learned a lot of valuable lessons from the experience.”
Ron, with his colleague Claire Dwyer, visiting a supplier.
What is your 2020 outlook for the valve manufacturing and oil & gas industry?
“One of the things I would say in 2020 is that the links between countries are getting closer and closer. Knowledge sharing is happening at a large scale, and manufacturing are not just throwing products into boxes and hoping they sell. Instead, there is a lot more coordination between companies, and discussions between engineers and manufacturers. And so there is a corresponding levelling of the engineering competence across the board. I think this will continue, and I think it will allow countries like China to continue developing their licensing and certifications, and it will allow India to keep up their exports while also picking up their domestic business. Within oil & gas, there is a broader shift going on due to rising environmental concerns, and companies are starting to think about their approach. These companies realize that in the long-term, there will be reduced demand for oil & gas as fuel but at the same time there could be an increase in hydrocarbon feedstocks for making plastics and other products. So there is a lot of shifting happenings in the oil & gas industry, and from an engineering perspective, this is good news: after all, no matter what the projects end-goals are, someone has to help build it. In this same view, I think there is cause for optimism for engineering companies. I myself sort of identify as a piping engineer rather than an oil & gas engineer: it does not matter to me what is in the pipes, I am more concerned with the components. Fluor does this as well; they have a diverse range of projects they are involved in. So working at a company like Fluor, young engineers will find that there is a great deal of opportunity to build things, and I see this continuing on into the future, perhaps on a more global scale. The job security for an engineer, and more generally, for people who want to be innovative and look for new ways of doing things, is strong. You have to take a long-view. It may be doom and gloom this year, or even the next, but in the long run, I see that things are going to improve over time.”