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Process Engineering and Scale-up

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

Today, I'd like to go into detail about what a process engineer does as part of the new product development process. This is the work that I have personally been doing for a while. You can check out my work background on the "About Me" page. In an earlier post, I went through the general cosmetic product development flow. This post will focus on scale-up after the formula is finalized and locked in.

Before I define the work of the process engineer, I want to clarify what it is not. Generally, this person is separate from the chemist who did the laboratory work to develop the formula. In large companies, a chemist within the research and development department would typically be iterating that new formula with input from the marketing team. When working with a contract manufacturer, the manufacturer can provide that service with their own internal technical team.

This role is also generally separate from the supply chain organization that is making products for customers. Within the manufacturing plant, the department making the bulk product in kettles is referred to as "Compounding". This department will likely have someone on staff with an engineering title who owns continuous improvement projects, new equipment installations, and equipment and software upgrades over time. This manufacturing engineer may have a chemical engineering background and will know the manufacturing equipment and processes well, but typically does not have responsibilities for new product development. They are focused on optimizing the manufacturing of existing products.

Now that we've narrowed down the scope, it should be clear that the research and development process engineer is focused primarily on new product launches. The cosmetic chemist worked to get the formula finalized with marketing and has created prototypes. They have generally been working at a one-kilogram scale. Now, they will hand off the formula and the laboratory procedure to the process engineer for the scale up work.

The process engineer will work to take the process used in the laboratory scale and translate it into a work instruction that can be used by the manufacturing team. The goals of the process engineer are:

  • Establish the manufacturing process for full scale production including mixing speeds, times, order of raw material addition, operating temperatures, and in-process checks.

  • Minimize energy usage by implementing the lowest acceptable temperatures and mixing speeds and optimizing additions. For example, cooling a batch by adding room temperature raw materials instead of turning on the cooling system.

  • Incorporate ergonomic and equipment limitations to make the manufacturing process as safe and simplified as possible.

  • Test the limits of the formula. Try to cause emulsions to separate, surfactants to foam, and any potential issues to come up in the small scale in order to understand the controls needed at full scale.

These goals are achieved by making batches at a variety of scales. If possible, the engineer will start off working directly with the cosmetic chemist in the laboratory, making the formula together and asking questions about the procedure. The engineer will then make batches on their own, varying the procedure to reduce energy usage, test limitations of mixing and temperature, and noting ingredients that are difficult to add or incorporate or have the potential to be difficult to add at a larger scale.

After revising the laboratory process, the new process will generally be tested at a pilot scale or move straight to the full scale for a trial batch, depending on the level of risk associated with the new product. For a shade extension of an existing product where the only change is levels of colorants, there may be very minimal scale up work. For a completely new product with no similar formulas in the product portfolio, multiple pilots or trials may be needed. After each batch, the product will be tested and compared to the original prototype to confirm there were no changes in appearance, texture, viscosity, pH, or preservative or active ingredient assay.

At any of the steps above, things can go wrong. That's really when the process engineer can show their value. New product launches are usually on tight timelines without much time allotted for troubleshooting. If a product separates in the kettle, doesn't meet the release testing criteria, or varies considerably from the initial prototype, that's where technical expertise and problem-solving comes in. This is very situational and product-specific, but in general, requires a combination of data analysis and cross-functional cooperation to determine the path forward. The outcomes range from the worst case scenario of killing the project to the easy fix of making a slight tweak to the specification if all affected parties agree that the change from the prototype is acceptable.

Once the manufacturing process is finalized, the first commercial batch will be made at full scale. Generally, the process engineer will be on the manufacturing floor to monitor the batch and answer any questions from the Compounder. If all issues were ironed out during scale up, this batch should be relatively uneventful. If all goes well and the batch passes all release testing, the scale up process is complete!

In closing, if you read this post and are thinking this is what you would like to do in your career, I'd like to give some context for how to get here. I've found that my coworkers have generally had degrees in chemical engineering, with some chemistry degrees. I personally have a master's degree, but I don't find it to be common or necessary in this technical work. The great thing about this industry and job function is that there isn't a clear educational pathway so learning on the job is expected and encouraged. Throughout my career, my colleagues and managers have been great resources. If you have any questions for me, please leave a comment below!

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