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Wyoming Companies Empower Development of UW Process Control Program

January 31, 2019
A chemical processing facility in southwest Wyoming
Genesis Alkali operates eight processing plants in southwest Wyoming, and has donated $100,000 to UW to ensure it has employees trained in process control and instrumentation. (Genesis Alkali photo)

When Genesis Alkali noticed a training gap, it turned to the University of Wyoming’s College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) to solve the problem.

Vice President of Manufacturing Fred von Ahrens and Vice President of Technology and Business Development Aaron Reichl seek to ensure their company has qualified employees. Genesis Alkali oversees a multi-faceted mining and production facility in Green River, Wyo. It operates the world’s largest natural soda ash mine and production site, and strives to harness the latest technological innovations to serve its customers.

One of the most crucial aspects of the operation involves process control. The responsibility of process control is the design of industrial control systems that oversee processing and manufacturing, while maintaining quality assurance and strict safety protocols. Efficient and effective process control is particularly important in batch and continuous processing and can make or break a company.

The demand for qualified process control employees outpaces the availability. Typically, process control is an area in which Genesis Alkali prefers to hire experienced people, but because of the shortage, the company wants to take a different approach. It is donating $100,000 in seed funding to establish a minor in process control and a minor in instrumentation in the CEAS.

“We’re stepping up to meet this challenge,” Reichl says. “We like to hire people or develop internal people into the role who already have experience, but what we’ve found is it’s becoming very hard to hire experienced people. With that in mind, Genesis Alkali reached out to the University of Wyoming to develop a new program that would provide college graduates with a solid foundation in process control.”

Genesis Alkali officials have worked with the UW Department of Chemical Engineering to initiate the program. Chemical Engineering Department Head Vladimir Alvarado and Professor David Bagley are leading the efforts, but the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering will serve as a university partner.

“UW’s Department of Chemical Engineering is working closely with industry partners to develop a minor and certificates in process control and instrumentation,” Alvarado says. “This program enhances the profile of our students in areas of control, human-machine interface and modern automation trends. These skills enable students to access exciting job opportunities with industry in Wyoming and elsewhere. This educational opportunity, in cooperation with Electrical and Computer Engineering, will attract students interested in advanced technologies and computer-aided disciplines.”

The first courses are scheduled to begin in fall 2019, and a Professor of Practice in chemical engineering will coordinate the program. There are two proposed educational spaces for the program, including a control simulation laboratory and a process engineering control laboratory.

“I’ve worked a number of years with both David Bagley and Vladimir Alvarado through the university’s Chemical Engineering Industrial Advisory Board,” Reichl says. “That has been such a great experience, as both individuals have such a passion and drive for excellence. I can’t imagine two better leaders to create the process control program.”

The program will be put in place to educate more industry-ready graduates with strong fundamental and practical training in process control, and it will create new educational and training opportunities to better serve the state. It will prepare UW graduates to contribute immediately, as process control is critical to many Wyoming industries.

“Our industry—and so many others—need this expertise,” Reichl says. “From oil and gas production and refinement, manufacturing, food processing, chemicals, power production, pharmaceuticals, building and facility management—it all requires control and automation of equipment.”

Genesis Alkali has hired more than 30 UW graduates over the last five years. The company employs about 950 people at eight processing plants and an underground mining operation that is 1,600 feet below the Earth’s surface. Other industry partners to support the program include J.R. Simplot Company, Sinclair Oil and Infinity Power and Controls. CEAS alumnus Bruce Pivic owns Infinity.

“The university gives students a solid educational foundation, but they also come out with practical knowledge as well,” Reichl says. “It’s great to have the university and leaders like Dean Michael Pishko, Vladimir and David support the workforce needs of Wyoming’s businesses. We are confident that the passion of these individuals will lead to a great program.

“We were willing to put up seed money to get the program off the ground. With the strengths they have and the passion they have, we’re sure it’s going to be a success.”

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