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“At my high school in Lenasia South, I always displayed a natural flair for mathematics and problem solving. I was lucky enough to have a passionate maths teacher who supported me and was first to advise me to become an engineer. This was before I had any formal knowledge of what engineering was about, the different fields of engineering, how they related to each other and what engineers in industry did,” Fakir begins.

SAIChE IChemE Qasim Fakir coal gasification coal petrography Unilever

During an open day at the then RAU, now the University of Johannesburg (UJ), there was a Sasol Stand where bursary forms were being handed out. “I was with a group of friends just ‘checking the scene’ as I had already made up my mind that going to university might not be a reality for me. I took a form, though and completed it, selecting to study chemical engineering, still not knowing what it was really about,” he says.

Qasim Fakir was awarded a Sasol bursary for his undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, which he began in 2004 when he was 18 years old.

“I found it challenging from the outset. I was from an underprivileged government school, which, I felt, left gaps in my understanding and the problem solving strategies required to cope with the way the engineering works. I was also the first member of my family to be afforded the opportunity to attend university, so I found it difficult to relate to my family and had no role models to consult about how to navigate university life,” he tells MechChem Africa.

“My time at Wits was an incredible time for me, though. I fondly remember the late nights having to work on tutorials while finding the time to balance my social and sports commitments. An avid sportsman, I played for the Wits 1st team in Volleyball and represented Wits at numerous sports tournaments. I also remember the various teaching staff who helped shape me, with the late Professor Donald Williams being a key individual in helping to shape my chemical engineering knowledge,” Fakir recalls.

As a condition of the Sasol bursary, students were required to work on rotation at different Sasol business units. Fakir loved the rotation side of Sasol’s bursary strategy as it exposed him to the opportunities available and the different roles of chemical engineers. “One of my favourite placements was at the Sastech R&D unit, which develops new technologies and tests new approaches before scaling them up for the production environment. I wanted to work there once qualified, but after graduating with my undergraduate degree in 2008, Sasol found itself amidst the global economic recession, unable to employ all of its graduates. The company implemented an interview process instead.

“I was one of those offered a job, but it was with Sasol Synfuels in Secunda, which I was less inclined to accept. Instead, I stayed on at Wits to complete a Master’s degree in the hope that my preferred option would open up after an economic turnaround,” Fakir informs MechChem Africa.

He went back to do a full time Masters degree at the University of the Witwatersrand by dissertation and research. “My work was inspired by Professor Nicola Wagner, who isn’t a chemical engineer, but is considered a South African expert on fine coal petrography, a specialised branch of coal science that focuses on analysing coal using microscopy. The technique enables coal deposits to be categorised according to their age and genealogy. The composition, calorific value, ash content and a host of other properties can be accurately characterised, without the need to use formal ‘chemical’ analysis techniques,” Fakir explains.

“I was co-supervised by Dr Shehzaad Kauchali, who headed up the Gasification Technology Research group at Wits. So my Masters was a synergistic blend of coal science and chemical engineering, which helped further expand my understanding of the inter-relatedness of the different fields of knowledge, and how they support each other,” he explains.

Qasim Fakir’s MSc research involved coal gasification. “I used the distributed activation energy model (DAEM) to understand the pyrolysis behaviour of high-ash content coals, biomass and blends of coal and biomass. This model used mathematical algorithms to characterise the pyrolysis behaviour of the fuels in an inert atmosphere to predict their decomposition products and the rate at which these products devolatilise during the thermal decomposition reaction.

“The model was able to predict pyrolysis behaviours and products of high-ash South African coal and it was also extended to include biomass fuels. We tested blends of coal and biomass and compared the results to the values predicted by the model – and the correlation was excellent,” he informs MechChem Africa..

The dissertation was selected to be presented at the prestigious Pittsburgh international Coal Congress in 2010, but due to funding constraints, he was unable to attend. The published work, however, laid a good foundation for further work on a variety of combustion scenarios and was used as the basis for a PhD project looking at different types of coal and fuel sources.

Sasol conducted interviews during 2009/2010 and Fakir was again offered a post at the Synfuels production site in Secunda. “I was also offered funding for a PhD, but having already spent six years studying, I was ready to work and earn money. I thus opted to part ways with Sasol and was recruited into a graduate recruitment programme at Unilever South Africa.”

In 2011, Fakir started work at the Unilever Washing Powder Plant in Boksburg as a process engineer with a focus on new product development. “I started out looking at taking products from our research and development teams and upscaling production processes to make them viable,” he says, adding that this gave him the process innovation and new technology development opportunities that he had first seen at Sastech.

“The job also involved a process optimisation element, reducing costs, using fewer resources, improving production and energy efficiencies and reducing environmental impacts,” he adds.

Then, during a restructuring exercise at Unilever, a technical resource gap was identified in the quality department. “A quality engineer role was created, and I was appointed. This was a pivotal point in my career. It opened my eyes to how the whole quality engineering world works, from supplier management, through to the development of production cycles and, via quality management all the way through to customer satisfaction. The whole value chain has to be aligned to deliver high quality products and services to consumers,” he points out.

“And while the scope of this new role went beyond the bounds of pure chemical engineering, I was able to bring process methodology approaches to the tasks and problems that needed to be addressed: asking what we can do to eliminate defects, initiate improvement projects and identify, in advance, the benefits and consequences,” he reveals.

He cites a success in the Domestos liquid bleach bottling line. “We had an issue with leaking bottles which, on investigation, was being caused by the relative orientation of the bottles just before the cap was screwed on. We modified the line alignment, put a new quality standard in place to manage the bottling machine and completely eliminated the problem,” he relates.

Following four years as the quality engineer at Unilever, Fakir was ready for a new challenge and joined the US multinational, 3M, as its process and quality assurance (QA) manager. “I think there is natural link between process control and product quality. Being responsible for the implementation side enables quality standards to become an intrinsic part of production,” he argues.

Considered as one of the world’s most innovative companies, 3M invented the Post-it-note. Fakir was given responsibility across five separate 3M businesses, which included their Health Care, Consumer, Industrial, Electronics & Energy, and Safety & Graphics businesses.

“I found myself looking at ways to reduce the waste losses during the production of Scotch-Bright® washing up sponges, and improving the product performance of our FFP2-rated dust-masks to exceed SANS requirements. The sheer diversity of the role lent itself to my continued development and helped me hone my management and business acumen skills,” he says.

“I was also the first South African to receive the Global Quality Achievement Award for 3M, at its US-based headquarters in 2017,” he says excitedly.

“It was while at 3M that I became involved with SAIChE IChemE, with a view to contributing to the future of the chemical engineering industry. I work predominantly in the manufacturing space, which is less mainstream for most chemical engineers in South Africa.

“The profession is ideal for those who are innovative and looking for solutions to the problems they see around them,” Fakir advises.

He recently joined Saint-Gobain Gyproc as its senior process engineer, which involves similar but less complex responsibilities to the ones he had at 3M. “We supply Gypsum-based products for the construction and retail sectors and I am responsible for the production site, looking after manufacturing processes, testing new processes and raising quality standards.

“Mine is a challenging role, involving process and cost optimisation across the supply chain, while upscaling the production of new and more sustainable modern products.

Qasim Fakir was a member of the plant management team that contributed to the Brakpan plant achieving its World Class Manufacturing (WCM) Bronze award in 2018 for Quality and Process Control, an award that lays a solid foundation for future investment within South Africa.

“As a profession, chemical engineering involves critical problem solving techniques that I apply on a daily basis: should we buy from local supplier? Should we change the formulation of our mixture? And what are the consequences of these decisions likely to be for our business, processes and products and, ultimately, our customers?”

Chemical engineering enables professionals to steer their career in many different directions. “I have been involved in the petrochemical field; fast moving consumer goods; automotive; healthcare; and now construction. The diversity of opportunity is endless and, for those who challenge the status quo, are self-starters and can come up with, and see solutions through, chemical engineering is a highly rewarding choice,” he concludes.

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