From Digging Ditches to Drilling
Posted: September 17, 2018
As part of our continuous commitment to the Year of Engineering, we interviewed Andy Patterson, Proserv’s Technical Advisor, to find out why he became an engineer.
How did you decide on a career in Mechanical Engineering?
Back in 1979, when planning to attend university, my parents encouraged me to study engineering, badging it as “the best education I could ever hope for”. My father was a well-seasoned Mechanical Engineer and my two older brothers became Chemical and Electrical Engineers so it was a natural choice.
What was your first job once you left university?
When I graduated from the University of Alberta in 1984, the economy was at the bust-end of a typical boom-bust cycle. Finding an engineering job proved to be difficult. After graduation, you could say my first job chose me. Luckily, I was able to return to one of the companies that I had worked for during the CO-OP program. The company provided cathodic protection engineering, procurement and construction services. I primarily worked on construction crews unloading tons of material by hand, supervising trenching operations (i.e. digging ditches) and/or installing electrical wiring, voltage rectifiers and anode ground beds. I also monitored and surveyed cathodic protection systems, sometimes with a work buddy, sometimes independently.
How did you go on to become experienced in product design?
In 1985, with the help of my best friend’s sister who happened to own and operate a recruitment agency, I was offered a Senior Engineer position in a centrifugal pump service center. When I reported to work, the actual Senior Engineer had quit, and the Engineering Manager had become the plant’s General Manager. I was immersed into heavy equipment manufacturing, sales and service work.
As the sole engineer, I was responsible for directing all of the work that was performed by journeymen, millwrights, welders and machinists and dealing directly with engineering end-users and management personnel. I worked hard at developing mutually respectful relationships with everyone.
Based on recommendations provided by the customers I was serving, I obtained my Professional Engineering status in Alberta. Shortly after this I decided to look for an engineering (“not shop”) job that included formal product design and manufacturing work.
By 1991, the economy had improved and I fortunately entered into an Engineering Manager position with a licensed pipeline ball and gate valve manufacturer. Three years later, I was offered the newly created R&D Project Manager position which appealed to me since it was an opportunity to create new valve designs from scratch.
What was the first product that you designed, prototyped and was sold on in large numbers?
The first new product that I designed was a Multiport Selector Valve, used for gathering well production from up to seven different wells and testing production from an eighth well, all while diverting the gathered well fluids out through a common outlet port. The 4×8 Class 600 model was the newest and largest size, first manufactured and sold in 1996. It was equipped with the same electric rotary 360° valve positioner used on the 3×6 Class 600 model. Using the common valve positioner was possible due to the more efficient double acting valve seat design that I developed. Over the years, the valve has been sold globally – which led to a new business segment for the manufacturer (valve and piping skid fabrication). Larger sizes and higher pressure classes of multiport selector valves also followed.
How did your career path eventually lead to Proserv Gilmore in Houston?
After working for multinational oil and gas equipment manufacturers for 15 years, I decided to start my own company in 2005. With the price of natural gas at a record high, my company soon had self-contained hydraulic ESD system prototypes developed for an Alberta-based distribution company, offering a superior product at a competitive price. Then in 2007, shale gas entered the marketplace and natural gas prices dropped like a rock. Due to the risk associated with a new business and market conditions, the distribution company decided to stop supporting my new ESD product in favour of their established ESD supply chain.
Patents were obtained for the new ESD system in Canada and the US but it looked like no other business deals were going to develop in Alberta. The multinational valve manufacturers now, surprisingly, viewed me as their competition.
In 2009, I sent my resumes to Houston-based engineering recruiters. Within two months, I had an offer to start working with Gilmore Valves as the Product Engineering Manager. Soon after, I was driving 2,300 miles south to Houston in an RV. My long and varied background in engineered product design and manufacturing appealed to them and their history and ability to engineer, manufacture and test advanced subsea products, all from a single location, appealed to me.
And in 2015, one of those multinational manufacturers purchased my ESD system prototypes and patents, albeit at a bargain basement price!
What message do you have for young graduate engineers?
After graduation, find work that will enable you to balance the theoretical aspect of engineering with practical “real world” experience. By getting involved at a hands-on level, and making yourself valuable to the company, you will likely find opportunities to learn, contribute and advance.
Learn by getting your hands dirty! How the documentation, the operation or process and even the engineering design, could be improved. When an opportunity presents itself, understand who, what, when, where and why, and then teach the tradesmen that the engineering requirements need to be a certain way for good reason. This will optimise the flow of knowledge, in all directions, and should lead to successes for the company.
It’s the challenge to develop the next best product or design and the sense of accomplishment that I get when successful that keeps me engaged to this day after 35 years as an engineer. I seem to have a knack for strategically conceptualising and leading the development of new and improved products. It has remained the central theme of my career, and has been my creative outlet. Never let anyone say engineers aren’t creative!