IChemE and the Process Plant Design & Construction Industry

There is a story to be told about the role of IChemE in supporting the education and professional qualification of Chemical Engineers that brought International Process Plant Engineering Contractors to London in the second half of the twentieth century.

Several British process plant design and construction contractors had grown out of the demand for coal gasification used in the production of Town’s Gas and in the steel industry and some had diversified into other areas of the process industries. However, the growth of petroleum refining and petrochemical industries in Europe after WW2 was an opportunity for U.S. firms and London was a favoured location for their offices. The use of English was an obvious advantage, but the ready availability of professional chemical engineers was a key factor and IChemE’s requirement to include a Design Project in accredited degree/diploma courses and the IChemE’s exam for Associate membership, assured an understanding of the methodologies of process engineering.

In the USA, process plant contractors were well established in many parts of the country – New York, Boston & New Jersey in the East; San Francisco & Los Angeles in the West as well as Chicago and other industrial bases. Firms from all these U.S. locations came to London which together with existing British contractors created what was probably the largest concentration in the World of process plant design and engineering activity. The Company I worked for in the mid 1960’s was based in Central London’s West End and at that time there were around thirty process engineering contractors, consultants and their clients whose offices were within a mile of Oxford Circus.

This provided an excellent opportunity taken by the IChemE to provide a focal point for professional activities. The London & South East Branch included the Westminster Centre which was well supported by Chemical Engineers employed in Central London.

I was fortunate to serve on its committee and we held at least six evening meetings each year and in many years a full day Symposium. A very popular annual evening event was the Client/Contractor Forum where 70-80 attendees could be expected. We would have a key speaker from each side to make a presentation followed by lively discussions. Subjects could cover types of contract, project organisation structures and cost incentive arrangements and we also had meetings on related subjects which impacted the industries we served. I recall an evening that attracted record attendance was a review of global oil & gas reserves and developments presented by one of the partners of a leading energy consultancy. As is still true these activities not only provide a useful opportunity for professional and social interaction but also can be considered as informal CPD.

Several of the organisations which came here have been merged or taken over and remain in the U.K. but have mostly settled outside Central London. Their presence continues to bring opportunities for British suppliers of equipment and specialist services, thereby making a valuable contribution to our economy. 

Likewise, IChemE continues to support Chemical Engineers in these companies through its CPD activities, Special Interest Groups and local Member Groups.