Taking the lead as a young engineer

Romana Tomic, a process engineer with BOC Limited, speaks about how taking the initiative and grabbing opportunities can drive forward a career in the engineering sector.

In 2013, following her graduation from the University of New South Wales with a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering (Hons) and a Master of Biomedical Engineering, Romana Tomic joined BOC Limited, a supplier of compressed and bulk gases, chemicals and equipment, through the company’s Graduate Development Programme.

She has proven herself to be a valuable addition to BOC’s engineering team. Five years after her start with the company, Tomic was nominated in the Excellence in Engineering category at the 2018 Women in Industry Awards.

“It was pretty humbling to be nominated for the award, especially when I read the bios of the other nominees and the winner – they have a lot of experience, so it was pretty daunting,” Tomic told PACE. “But it was a wonderful feeling to be considered.”

Tomic started out with BOC as a production engineer across the cylinder business at the Sydney Operations Centre (SOC) at Wetherill Park. Her role included general production process improvement for the industrial cylinder filling facilities, working on projects that involved installing a new acetone supply system for acetylene production, and upgrading a silane treatment system.

As a graduate, Tomic worked for six months at BOC’s central customer-engineering department at the company’s North Ryde head office. She designed maintenance programs for customer liquid cylinders. Tomic returned to the SOC in 2014, providing engineering support to the specialty gases facility. She was promoted to lead design engineer, overseeing the design, build and conditions of all cylinder filling equipment during the construction of BOC’s new $20 million specialty gases facility that opened in February 2018. In her role, she was also in charge of conducting process hazard and risk analysis to ensure the new specialty gases facility was safe and met all internal and Australian standards and regulatory requirements.

“It was a fairly significant investment for us, and it has taken quite a few years for it to be developed and brought to fruition,” Tomic explained. “I got involved in the project and, eventually, I ended up being the lead engineer for most of the main equipment that was designed and built.”

The plant specialises in filling and analysing a whole range of specialty gas mixtures, which are made to order with a whole different array of gases. They are largely for the scientific industry, although they have many different applications.

“We make certified mixtures that are largely used for calibration and analysis in industries,” said Tomic. “They are low-volume, high-value, very precise mixtures. A lot of different industries use them, from medicine, to hospitals, to the car industry and mining.”

Tomic came to her role at the specialty gases facility following the retirement of the highly experienced technical manager during the design stage of the project. “I had to expand my role at the very beginning after one of our technical managers – who was one of the brains behind the whole idea – retired right when we started going into the detailed design. So, there were a few challenges in getting through that initial stage.”

The work on the specialty gases facility is now mostly completed. The last year has seen testing and final improvements, with the aim of optimising the process. “A lot of the equipment is quite new, and we did put a lot of automation into the plant, which has never been done in this way before,” Tomic said. “These systems and processes were manual previously, and around the world it is still mostly done manually. And that has been the key challenge: we have fundamentally changed how these processes are carried out to improve safety for ourselves and for our customers and to ensure we get the best product we can out in the safest possible way.”

Tomic said that while she had a few engineers in her family, she didn’t always consider going into the field herself. “My interest developed over time. I was always interested in how things worked at in school, in science, problem solving – that was always something I enjoyed. When I started reading about chemical engineering, I enjoyed the idea of how these processes encompass an overall plan, rather than just focusing on one aspect,” Tomic explained.

Studying at UNSW, Tomic said, put her in good stead for her career as an engineer, but there was a lot of on the job experience that she had to acquire. “When you get into an industry, there is still a lot of technical detail that had to be learned, as well as all other skills that are often more important for communicating with people from different levels of the organisation with different backgrounds and experiences,” she said.

“A lot of people have been here their whole careers and they have gained a wealth of experience within the company and that knowledge just doesn’t come from university. A lot of my learning has been gaining that knowledge and using and building relationships within the company to be able to get things done. It’s one thing to have a good idea, it’s another thing to be able to convince someone else to support it, to actually gain that trust.”

Having worked with the company for five years, Tomic’s colleagues consider her to be an expert in her field and a go-to person for guidance and advice. During the official opening of the newly upgraded specialty gases facility in February 2018, she led the tour and presented new laboratory equipment and its workings to over 50 dignitaries and guests. This includes Linde’s global chief executive, Aldo Belloni, federal resources minister, Matthew Canavan, as well as Stuart Ayres, NSW state minister for Western Sydney, WestConnex and sport.

Tomic said that it can be hard for young graduate engineers to get their foot in the door and get that first job, but she encourages those looking to make their careers in the area to express their opinions and make the best of opportunities when they present themselves. “It is all about putting yourself forward. Work on your network. Communicate with people and develop a network within the company, with people that will teach and support you. And offer assistance when you need it,” she said.

“Also, I found the biggest difference is having colleagues and managers that support your ideas support your development. For myself, as a young engineer, BOC has been really good at that. People here have been willing to give me the opportunity to stretch myself. It is important to get comfortable at being uncomfortable, because that’s where most of the learning happens and where you have the opportunity to show what you can do and hopefully add value to the company.”

This story originally appeared on PACE.