Is creativity essential for a career in chemical engineering?

Chemical engineering, a branch of engineering that involves turning raw materials into useful, everyday products, is a heavily technical vocation characterised by strict protocol and rigid procedures. But how big a part does creativity play in the day-to-day activities of a chemical engineer?

Chemical engineering is a broad discipline. Employed across a number of industries, engineers can work with products as varied as interdental brushes, deodorant sprays, and PVA glue, as well as industrial-scale products such as complexes, emulsifiers, spray and trays.

Elements of mathematics, mechanics, organic study, technology and kinematics all play a role in chemical engineering — meaning that chemical engineers need to display an adaptive mindset and a well-rounded range of skills to succeed in their field.

Chemical engineering may be procedural, but creativity is indispensable

Because the profession involves following established procedures, protocols and design codes, each of which have been built on years of measuring what is most safe and effective, many chemical engineers do not view their job as being particularly creative.

However, while there are constraints to such established methods, chemical engineering still offers plenty of scope for adopting creative approaches to problem-solving. For chemical engineers and the people they work alongside, harnessing creativity brings many benefits.

End-to-end creativity

Creative solutions punctuate the entire design process from the conceptual or discovery stage to the detailed engineering or production stage. Divergent thinking facilitates more innovative and competitive approaches to product and processes. Creativity drives business.

No matter the industry or the role, soft skills such as cognitive flexibility, critical thinking, emotional intelligence and creativity are becoming more valued by employers, and this is no different in the world of chemical engineering. As such, creativity is becoming an increasingly sought-after quality among chemical engineers.

Much of science and mathematics requires creativity. No scientist or mathematician enters their respective professions to stick to the status quo. Instead, they want to sit on the frontier of knowledge and advance our collective discoveries of the world. As something that fuses elements of both, therefore, chemical engineering clearly requires creative insight. Meanwhile, advances in computer science, data integration and electronics within the engineering field has expanded the capacity for innovative thinking.

Creativity is key to a successful chemical engineering career

Indeed, this aptitude is being increasingly recognised by the chemical engineering profession: in its UK-SPEC Chartered Engineer Standard document, for example, the Engineering Council — the UK's regulatory authority for registration of chartered and incorporated engineers — explicitly declares creativity to be a key skill for engineers.

It’s impossible to get a true understanding of the context of chemical engineering without acknowledging the need for improvisation. Chemical engineers rely on their problem-solving abilities just as much as their ability to correctly follow procedures, requiring systems-level thinking that the average person would not understand at an intuitive level. The existence of courses entitled “creativity for chemical engineers” further demonstrates the need for a creative impulse among engineers.

The takeaway

Given that many of the major challenges facing the scientific community in the 21st century — such as sustainable energy resources, water quality issues, and process efficiency in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries — are closely linked to chemical engineering, the importance of creativity cannot be understated. Science is a paradigmatic discipline, and it relies on original ideas and creativity to thrust into a new era.

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