Charles Johnson did not begin his career in the pipe industry. His first role was in law enforcement, before he switched gears and established his own construction company. Realizing that the construction business was overly saturated, he decided to make another switch. “I had to do something that others could not do, so I went back to school, and picked up drafting,” explained Johnson. “I did not know that this was going to end up being my next career, and that drafting would turn into designing, and then piping design.”
Johnson received degrees in Global Business Management from the University of Phoenix, and in Mechanical and Pipe Drafting from Houston Community College. “As beginners, the bulk of the work for a pipe designer is picking up red marks, and changes, from engineers,” explained Johnson. “At this stage one gets excited to go see the valves onsite, is exposed to many EPC firms, and has the opportunity to learn about the valves and the basic things that you need to be proficient as a designer. Becoming a pipe designer involves moving up through the ranks. We want a lot of field time because, although many things work on paper, it is important to understand it in the field.”
After working as a piping designer for several companies, Johnson progressed to hold his current position as Senior Piping Designer for Evergreen Engineering.
Established in 1985, Evergreen Engineering®, Inc., is a multi-discipline, full-service consulting engineering firm serving the power generation, wood products, pulp & paper, chemical, and resin industries. Evergreen also provides engineering services in alternative energy including renewable natural gas (RNG), biomass power, wood pellet manufacturing, and waste-to-energy projects. With offices in Eugene, Oregon, Atlanta, Georgia, and Everett, Washington, Evergreen serves clients throughout North America and around the world.
“As the renewable industry has many new advancements in technology and designs, we are constantly looking to produce the next innovative solution for renewable fuel. “I recently learned about some interesting new ongoing projects in Germany that are focused on using chicken and cow manure to make jet fuel. Right now, for example, Evergreen Engineering is working on a project that will use bagasse (sugar cane waste) to make fuel pellets.”
With his current focus on projects that use wood, there are not as many liquids present. As such, there are only a handful of valves that he works with on a constant basis. “We find that valves that can open all the way up are useful, it could be a butterfly valve, a fully evolved ball valve, or a gate valve with a large opening gate,” said Johnson.
In the past, pipe designers were considered pipe fitters. “One of the most talented people in the industrial world used to be a welder; now all of those guys have turned into designers,” said Johnson. “I was one of the last classes that took drafting in college, and we literally drew everything with our hands; now colleges do not even offer drafting anymore.”
Current designers use 3D modeling and advanced technologies to create the designs we see and use today. In his current role Johnson’s day-to-day responsibilities include designing systems for the wood industry and renewables. “In general, much of my day is comprised of designing piping systems in 3D. One of the programs that are common now is AutoCAD Plant 3D,” said Johnson. “There are several programs and thorough training that new designers must undergo to use these systems. I myself, am continuously learning new programs and systems to be able to use the best technology offered.” The programs are very effective at showing many details of each large industrial project Johnson works on. “From electricity, to concrete, the operator can see all the layers, and retrieve information on the multiple dimensions of the project,” he explained. “It is very interesting, and something that is not necessary for every industry.”
Johnson calls pipe designing a form of art. “I love the creativity that comes with putting the systems together. It is like art and I love making anything 3D,” said Johnson. “By taking the programs that we use and using the platform to create an immersive experience where I feel like I am standing in a 3D program, I can determine which types of valves will make sense for the project, where they will belong, and what size we will need. It really allows you to envision everything. For many, this wide range of possibilities is almost too abstract, however. It is difficult to use effectively.”
To construct a 3D model there are several steps that must be followed. The first step in the process is receiving the specifications for the project from the engineers and the parameters of what the client needs. The engineer will verify pressure and temperature requirements, and if everything adds up between the conditions and equipment. “Then, it is the designer’s responsibility to take that equipment, put it where it is intended to go, and make it fit accordingly,” said Johnson. “At this point, there is sometimes a disconnect. If something will not fit, a designer is really the only person that can tell an engineer ‘no’.”
One of the problems that any industry faces, but especially engineering, is maintaining personable relationships with colleagues and strong communication. “For some reason, the community equates an engineering degree with a managerial role, but in reality, those are very different things, that require different training,” said Johnson. “We have designers, and engineers, working together, so there can be butting of heads, because they are both experts and both very knowledgeable in their respective fields. We have to take a few more steps for communication and be more attentive. Communication is key in engineering always a challenge.”
Johnson described the oil and gas industry as being not only economically driven but also politically driven. “I believe that the majority of people do not truly understand the economics of oil. For most, their only reference is the price of gas is,” explained Johnson. During the ongoing pandemic, Johnson experienced a layoff, as many others also did. “The nature of chemical, oil and gas, is dependant on the market. So that is why it is beneficial to be in the renewables now, and seeing how this all works,” he said. “During every industry downturn, we lose valuable and experienced talent because they see if an opportunity to retire.”
Johnson described that one can have a very successful and financially positive career in this field, because it is a desired skill. “If you have 3D experience, that adds even more to your value.”
For aspiring pipe designers, Johnson recommends learning as many programs as possible, and working with them as well. “Sometimes it is not about the training, but companies want to know if you worked for somebody using that program, and if you know it extremely well,” explained Johnson. “Even though one might have a lot of training, it has been my observation that firms want to see two things. One – do they have work experience with the needed programs? Many will tell untruths to get the job and its not found out until later, if attention is not paid. Two – does the candidate have a positive attitude and able to be trained? Like any industry, firms hire and are filled with humans with different personalities. Some people struggle with interpersonal communication skills so it is good to identify them early on so that leadership can make a well-informed decision.”
Johnson also believes that the industry is still very male dominated, and there needs to be more awareness on equality. “Even though engineering and design is still majority male, the industry is filled with educated problem-solvers who welcome women and minorities amongst its ranks. Because of the progressive mindset in the industry, women and minorities tend to be very successful and treated as equals.”