Now he not only easily recognizes the machine used to harvest grain crops, but he’s part of today’s modern agriculture industry.
Travis is an engineer for Canada-based Agrium Inc., which produces fertilizers and other nutrients for growers who want to get as much as possible from each acre of their crops. Its plant in Borger, Texas, produces nitrogen fertilizers. Others made from ammonia, phosphate, potash, and micronutrients such as iron and zinc are made in other locations. Each type of crop requires a different chemical combination.
Travis knows a lot about these chemicals, of course; he graduated as a chemical engineer from the University of Texas at Austin. However, his newest job as a production and process engineer requires him to oversee a plant expansion , from design to construction to operation. Along the way, he identifies improvements that will help the plant “make our products more efficiently, more reliably, and more safely,” he says.
That means, for instance, making design changes to accommodate a new product or process. The expansion will increase the plant’s production of ammonia and urea, two compounds included in fertilizers. It means troubleshooting any equipment problems. It even means a few 2 a.m. phone calls that require him to make a high-stakes decision that could cost – or save – the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The expansion is important to American farmers, Travis says. The U.S. is the world’s largest importer of nitrogen fertilizer. Much of it is made in Middle Eastern nations such as Egypt, where natural gas – a component of the production process – is cheap. Producing it “down the road from the farmer,” Travis says, means avoiding the higher costs of importing it.
Once the fertilizers are produced, Agrium sends them to terminals throughout the nation’s “corn belt” and other agricultural areas. From there, they go to smaller retailers and then to farmers for each crop’s growing season.
“We have a lot of land in the U.S., but only so much that’s good for farming,” Travis says. “Being able to increase yields with fertilizers makes food cheaper for everybody.”
But the production process isn’t without its risks, and much of Travis’ job is tied to safety – both for his coworkers and the surrounding community.“ Chemicals are a big part of the process, but they can be really hazardous in huge quantities,” he says. The plant, like any other, also includes potential hazards such as conveyor belts and high-speed, rotating equipment. “Safety is a critical component and we need to make sure that any design or modification we make isn’t going to impact that. “It’s the first thing you think about when you make a design change,” says Travis. “If it increases risk, then you have to throw it out the window.”
For Travis, each workday is different – and that’s how he likes it. One day, he might be in his office drawing things out on paper or working on spreadsheets. On the next, he might be deep into the plant, working with tradesmen to solve equipment issues and “actually getting dirty, which is a lot more fun."
That points out the importance of interpersonal skills in an industry that also depends on a strong science and math background. Travis says the “people side of things is often overlooked” in engineering. But it is a big part of his job, from communicating design changes that need to be made to mentoring junior engineers. An interest in technology – and the ability to change with it – is also important for future engineers, he says.
“Technology has given us so many more tools to help us understand how to operate safer and more efficiently,” says Travis. “But things change every year. Something we did five or 10 years ago has already changed with new technology coming out. Being able to adapt to those changes is key. You can’t rest on your laurels.”
Travis credits a high-school computer science teacher for his own interest in technology and engineering. “She bent over backward to make sure everybody fell in love with [computer] programming,” he says. He also knew he “liked working with my hands and solving problems.” That isn’t to say that Travis coasted through classes. He admits to being “an average math student” who struggled in his first-year high school geometry class. “But I learned from those difficulties,” he says. He went on to take advanced calculus, thermodynamics, and organic chemistry.
“Don’t let fear of those subjects deter you,” he tells potential engineers. “Teachers are there to help push you along.” Just as important, he says, is the ability to ask questions and the desire to make improvements.
In the workplace, just as in life – “there’s a certain satisfaction in being able to take risks.”