Wheels Up: Traveling Engineers Keep the World Moving

Alina Bartley traveled to Hangzhou, China, with a client to closely examine a manufacturing business. CREDIT: Courtesy of Alina Bartley

By Alina Bartley, SWE Editorial Board

In October 2019, I was in Hangzhou, China, accompanying my client on a business trip. We were visiting a few manufacturers that specialized in making polyester yarn. My client was considering buying the product directly from an overseas manufacturer, and before that trip, had thought the yarn was being produced in small manufacturing shops and was concerned about the quality. However, what we found was that in some cases, this product was so vertically integrated that it was being manufactured by major petrochemical producers with significantly more resources than my client had imagined.

Seeing the lab testing facilities, the process automation, and the measures taken by these manufacturers to ensure product quality was eye-opening and more convincing than only getting a handful of product samples.

This is just one example of why some work in engineering requires travel.

In engineering (or in my case, engineering-adjacent roles such as consulting), we travel for two reasons: to see the people or to see the equipment. Seeing and interacting with people builds trust, reduces miscommunication, and improves productivity overall. Examining the equipment, facilities, or processes reduces the potential for errors and leads to faster or more accurate diagnostics. In the same way that shopping for clothes in person is more reliable than trusting measurements listed online, seeing something or someone in person can lead to better outcomes.

Travel requirements vary by role and industry. Some roles require no travel at all, and others require weekly trips. Here are some common situations and engineering roles that may require travel:

Technical: Process troubleshooting, commissioning a new plant, overseeing maintenance, improving turnarounds or equipment downtimes, and conducting inspections and audits all have one thing in common. They typically require an engineer to visit the site and review equipment or processes to quickly gain relevant information. It would be infeasible to conduct this work without being in person, and manufacturing sites usually rely on specialized resources that are not always available locally. Think of a new plant startup, for example. Building a new plant could require dozens of third parties — contractors, subject matter experts, consultants, and suppliers — in addition to internal resources from existing sites.

To put this into perspective, when I worked at ExxonMobil’s Olefins plant in Baytown, Texas, during a 2018 chemicals expansion project, thousands of people came in and out of the facility each day, many of whom were contractors and not personnel who regularly worked at that site. Christina Davis, turnaround manager at ExxonMobil, conducted a distillation tower inspection during one site visit, which helped identify issues that could have caused significant problems if the equipment had started up without those problems being addressed.

Business: Roles in project management, sales, or consulting require building trust and rapport, and therefore necessitate travel. A Harvard University study¹,² conducted in 2020, in which researchers mapped corporate card usage against growth in gross domestic product, or GDP, showed that business travel is a contributing factor to economic growth. The implication is that physically moving people to different parts of the world may be most effective in exchanging and generating ideas.

A bit of both: Sharing best practices, speaking at events such as Society of Women Engineers conferences, or volunteering for nonprofit humanitarian organizations such as Engineers Without Borders — which completes projects in other countries — all require travel as well.

Alina Bartley stands in front of an outdoor pond before walking into a restaurant in Hangzhou, China, to talk to potential suppliers. CREDIT: Courtesy of Alina Bartley

Make the most of traveling

If you find yourself in a role that requires travel, you can make the most of the experience with proper preparation.

Develop and communicate a clear agenda to everyone involved. I have sometimes traveled across the country for just one meeting. This can minimize time away from home, but it requires advance planning to make that one meeting effective. Whether you or someone else is planning the agenda, get into the habit of doing the following:

  • prepare meeting materials, a list of attendees, and activities in advance;
  • send any preparatory materials to all parties and ask them to read them; and
  • use the time on-site only for topics that require decisions or discussion.

Maximize time with people or equipment. Keep in mind the purpose of your visit; do not use time on-site to catch up on emails or conduct analyses that can be done at your home office. Instead, use any extra time for formal or informal in-person visits. I typically have at least one dinner with my colleagues or clients when traveling, even if it’s planned at the last minute. If you are visiting equipment or facilities, keep detailed records of the photos or videos taken. When I first took pictures for equipment inspections, I neglected to keep detailed notes of the equipment numbers or specific locations (e.g., north side, drum “ABC”) and forgot the context of the photo after leaving the site.

Make the experience as easy as possible. When participating in turnarounds, which require being on the road for months at a time, Davis, my colleague, likes to stay at hotels that offer kitchens and great gym amenities to maintain a healthier lifestyle. When possible, she also books travel with airlines or hotel chains that maximize her travel points.

Keep in touch and share ideas after traveling. If your trips are infrequent, it is easy to forget to nurture the relationships you built. Reconnect with individuals, even if virtually, after your return. If you have avenues to share learnings or best practices with your local team(s), take time to put together some information for “lunch and learns” or team debriefs to help others learn from your visit.

Although not all engineering roles require travel, it is very likely you will travel for work at some point in your career. Keep in mind the benefits of traveling and make the most of your experience if you get the opportunity to leave your home office sometime soon.

About the author

Alina Bartley (she/her) is a director with Alvarez and Marsal, assisting clients with supply chain management solutions. She graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering and from The University of Texas at Austin with an MBA. A SWE member since 2009 and a member of the SWE editorial board, Bartley has enjoyed working as a leader within her local Houston Area Section and with collegians at the global level.

1 Coscia, M., Neffke, F.M.H., and Hausmann, R. (2020). “What Would Happen if Business Travel Stopped?” Growth Lab, Harvard University. https://growthlab.hks.harvard.edu/academic-research/business-travel
2 Coscia, M., Neffke, F.M.H., and Hausmann, R. (2020). “Knowledge Diffusion in the Network of International Business Travel.” Nature Human Behaviour 4, 1011–1020. www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-0922-x