Monday, March 21, 2011

Chemical Engineering Hero: Ben Horwitz

You’ve probably caught on to the fact that we here at Chemstations are pretty proud of the chemical engineering profession. Well, I’d like to take this opportunity to recognize someone who has made some serious contributions to chemical engineering practice everywhere he’s been.

Those of you who have met Ben Horwitz know that he’s one of a kind. He’s sort of a force of nature that sweeps in and makes an impression. I’ve worked with Ben since 1995, and I owe a lot of what I know about practical process engineering to him.

Ben made a career at HK Ferguson (and then MK Ferguson) before going out on his own. He’s designed, troubleshot, de-bottlenecked, and optimized more processes that most of us will ever see; his hands-on, in-the-field techniques have made plants run when others had given up. In my experience, he doesn’t brag about the financial impact of his efforts, but I’d wager that he’s easily saved millions of dollars for his clients. Along the way, he’s educated future engineers in college process design classes and trained hundreds of engineers (and chemists!) in the use of simulation tools with his irreverent yet effective style. Ben is NOT a “click here” and “click there” instructor (as you know if you’ve taken a class!); he is a problem solver of the highest order, and he never lets you forget that process engineering is about solving problems.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ben and his myriad of engineering (and life) experiences, I invite you to take a look at his web site ( You will very likely find his book, Portrait of a Chemical Engineer, to be a fascinating read. It spans his university years, his time in the Peace Corps, and through to his professional work; it’s told in a fast pace through a series of vignettes that capture the highlights of the events that molded and shaped him into the professional, the chemical engineer, and the hero that we’ve come to know. You can read an excerpt online, and even order your own copy.

I’m incredibly lucky to count Ben as a colleague, and I’m proud to count him as a friend.

OK, so if you’ve read this far, I’m going to tell you about Ben’s influence on me. 1994. I was pretty green (ok, very green) and just out of undergrad when Ben began teaching at our seminars. I think the first thing he said to me was, “Who are you?” I said I was the new guy; he looked me up and down and walked away. He spoke quickly. He was to the point. I had no bona fides yet, and I was unproven. I sat in the back of the seminar room and watched in amazement as Ben began by telling stories. Telling stories to teach simulation? This was an amazing sight, to be sure.

So there he is, telling stories. Setting up scenes in chemical plants. Describing characters. Replicating dialogue from other engineers, from plant managers, and from operations staff. Focusing our attention on the challenge at hand. And then he led us all down the chemical engineering, problem solving path. He often asked questions of the attendees—questions that forced us to think and really got to the heart of the challenges. He also gave quizzes. He used a flip chart to describe a problem, and he just let the class run with potential solutions. I don’t remember which quiz it was, or which day it was, but I do remember that I answered one of the quizzes in a way that caused Ben to leap up and say “YES! THAT’S RIGHT! STEVE IS EXACTLY RIGHT!” In that instant, I saw how passionate this guy was about both the challenge of process engineering and the objective of teaching its principles to the class. He cared more than anyone I have ever seen in the chemical engineering world, and with that answer, I was suddenly on Ben’s radar.

We probably worked together five or six times a year for several years after that, and I was always impressed by Ben’s ability to quickly learn every attendee’s name and background. Ben’s style is to engage everyone, keep your attention, and make it fun. He puts every ounce of his energy into the courses, and everyone comes out tired, but with new perspectives.

I don’t get to work directly with Ben as much these days, but when I get the chance I love to wander into our training room and see the class react to Ben’s stories. I know most of them by heart now, but they still sound as fresh and important as they ever did. This is because he loves what he does (and does what he loves), and that makes him a hero to me and the rest of us at Chemstations.