Owner’s Engineer – Help bridging the commercialization gap : Biofuels Digest

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By Mark Warner, PE, Founder, Warner Advisors LLC

Special to The Digest

At a basic level, an owner’s engineer is an experienced consultant brought onto the project team with a deep understanding of both the industry being supported and experience working with engineering and construction firms, thus able to represent the company interest. Commonly, it is someone who has successfully executed similar commercialization projects multiple times and joins the team with experience of the entire process.  Understanding of the industry being supported is a key factor not to be overlooked. The way that novel food, petrochemical or aseptic fermentation process are commercialized is very different and having the right experience for a specific industry is critical to ultimate success.   Some thoughts on selecting the right owner’s engineer is as follows:

Is this the same as an “independent” engineer? – No. An independent engineer is brought on by a funding source to represent their interests and provide an independent insight into the process and its viability for financing. By contrast, the owner’s engineer works directly for the company developing and deploying the technology and brings expertise in items such as front-end loading (FEL), process development packages, detailed design drawings, equipment purchase negotiations and EPC contracting.

Knowing the answer before doing the analysis – One attribute that the right owner’s engineer should bring, is to have a good idea of what the answer will be before doing a detailed engineering analysis. The most common example is capital cost estimating for a proposed facility. Most experienced owner’s engineers can hear a description of the proposed facility (type of equipment, output of facility, etc.), and will start calculating a ballpark cost in their head. To confirm the capital number will require significant work and analysis, but having an understanding up front if there is a big difference with expectations can save money, time and frustration.

The a la carte menu – while the need for the owner’s engineer is common, the exact role they play depends on the knowledge base of the organization and gaps that exist. This can vary from limited technical input, to a part-time consultant focused on specific areas such as detailed design and management of the EPC contract negotiations. The common theme is acting as the interface between technology development and outside engineering firms or technology providers.

Part of the team – while there is usually an arm’s length relationship with traditional engineering firms and technology providers, an owner’s engineer usually is integrated into the project team more like an employee than a third party. This includes participation in internal planning and strategy meetings, often resulting in them being the key communicator with outside parties on issues that relate to engineering and construction.

Ability to “phone a friend” – one significant benefit of using an experienced owner’s engineer is the network that they bring with them. There is great value in being able to pick up the phone and when questions are slightly outside their area of technical expertise and get input of strategic value from contacts in their network.

Don’t get too far out over your skis – if you have read my previous articles, you will recall I have touched on the misunderstanding many in advanced biotechnology have as to what EPC is and is not. It becomes important, as so many early stage ventures worry about the strategy and partners needed to build their second or third plant, they do not pick the right firm to design their demonstration facility. I strongly recommend picking the right engineering firm for the task at hand and have found it to have a better record of success.

Understanding engineering industry terminology and typical path forward is a key to ensuring the process meets time, quality and cost expectations.

Mark Warner is a registered professional engineer with 30 years of experience in process commercialization, focusing for the last 10 years on taking first-of-a-kind-technologies from bench-top to commercial operation. He is the founder of Warner Advisors, providing consulting services and acting in interim engineering leadership roles for advanced bioeconomy clients. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit www.warneradvisorsllc.com.



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