Engineer Interview – Ross Topliff, Tops Engineering PLLC

In this new series of blog posts, we interview engineers from around the world discussing their careers and what changes they think their industry will face over the next 5 years.

Chemical Engineering

This week we speak to Chemical Engineer, Ross Topliff. Ross was brought to our attention because of his insightful views on the topic of Fracking. Ross talks us through the highlights of his career, how he get to where he is today, as well shedding some light on how he relaxes after a busy day in the office.

Ross Topliff

Name: Ross Topliff
Industry Sector: Consulting Chemical Engineer
Company: Tops Engineering PLLC
Years as Qualified Engineer: 35, PE - 6 years
Chemical engineering history (h2)

When did you first realise you wanted to become an Engineer?

I was attracted to chemical engineering after my high school was visited by the dean of the ChemE department of my local university. I had a long interest in the sciences.

Did you attend College/ University? If so, where/ what did you study?

I did my undergraduate work at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, NH. I earned my Master’s in Chem Eng. From the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. Finally I earned a Masters in Management of Technology from Stevens Institute in Hoboken, NJ

Different job roles of chemical engineers

Describe your first job as an Engineer? What were your responsibilities in this role?

My first job as a chemical engineer was with a small bulk chemical/pharmaceutical ingredient manufacturer in New York. It was a great place to start as I had the opportunity to work with many different unit types of equipment used throughout the chemical industry including: fluid bed and fixed bed catalytic reactors, horizontal and vertical liquid-liquid extractors, batch and continuous distillation, heat exchangers, pumps, steam and hot oil heating systems, and much more. I started as a process engineer and worked up to a project engineer, handling a $2 million water system. I had the opportunity to work with an excellent group of engineers and even did some drafting by hand.

What sort of role would you recommend to someone who is at the start of their engineering career?

Determine what type of work really excites you – desk work or hands-on, computers or people, details or larger scope. Then check with experienced engineers to gain insight into what types of positions provide that exposure. You may not be successful the first time, but finding work you really love is the key to being successful in your career and enjoying life. Also, finding a position like my first one that exposes you to many facets of engineering will go a long way s toward helping you determine what you rally want to do with your career.

Career progression of chemical engineers

How have you progressed from your first job role? What were the stepping stones you made to get to your current role?

In my first job, I was part of a team of engineers and had no supervisory responsibility. In my next job, I supervised one R&D technician and did some travelling for contract work and gathering flavor materials in the US and Britain. In my third position, I started managing a pilot plant with 2-5 people before moving to the production department where I eventually supervised three production shifts of 5 personnel each. From there, I went to a start-up company  where I was responsible for all engineering and maintenance work with 2-3 people reporting to me before they almost folded. Eventually, I started my own consulting firm where I am responsible for EVERYTHING from finding work to completing the engineering projects.

What is your current role? And what are your responsibilities?

I am the principal in my own chemical engineering consulting firm of one person. I have two remote, part-time people who work with me in support functions such as social media and research. I am responsible for marketing my firm, prospecting for work, preparing proposals, negotiating contracts, expanding my network to locate expertise I don’t have, doing the engineering work I can, and taking care of all the financial responsibilities of a business.

What has been the most challenging engineering project you have worked on in your career?

That is a hard one to answer. Probably, my most challenging project was my first one. I was asked to create the drawings and material balance for a new plant to make an existing product. The drawings were mostly a copy of existing ones. The material balance was new and had several recycle streams. My mentor, fortunately, was very patient with me and walked me through it. The process was quite complex and very different from anything I studied in college.

What are the most satisfying parts of your current job role?

I get to be my own boss!! I am ultimately and completely responsible for my own work and happiness. There is a lot of responsibility and frustration at times, however it sure beats my work in t the corporate world for most of the past 35 years.

Would you do anything differently if you had the chance to change one thing in your career?

If I would change anything, it would probably be not trying to get into the plant management ladder. I am a techy at heart and love that more than anything. I did gain some valuable experience as a production supervisor, so it was only a valuable detour.

The future of chemical engineering

What do you see happening in your industry in the next 5 years?

Wow, what a tough question!! The chemical engineering industry has changed so much in the past 5 years that even those who are experts in this area can’t accurately predict this.

However – my predictions:

1) continued expansion of remote information technology used in manufacturing,

2) growing concern for protecting the environment, especially in developing countries,

3) continued gradual utilization of renewable energy sources.

Would you use the internet to try and get in touch with other industry experts?

I do this on a regular basis today, primarily through LinkedIn. I can only know so much and the knowledge base continues to grow exponentially. The only way to access specialised knowledge when needed is through the internet.

How do you keep up-to-date with the latest technologies in your sector?

I read a lot. I read two print trade journals (Chemical Engineering & CEP) and have internet subscriptions to several more to keep abreast of the latest developments.

Got any questions for Ross? Email us at [email protected] or leave them in the comments section below. We will get in touch to get them answered for you.

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