Meet our Alumni
Howard Ingber, BS ’56: “Johnny Appleseed” of Prepackaged Analyzer Systems
Earlier this year, Department Head Paul Kenis and Major Gift Office Braden Shain met with Howard Ingber near his Los Angeles-area home. Many years had passed since Ingber had any contact with the department. Kenis and Shain were delighted when Ingber brought to the meeting envelopes stuffed with photographs of him and his former classmates, photos of analyzers being installed at job sites around the world, diagrams, magazine clippings, and other items from his past.
“We’re proud to count Howard Ingber as one of our alumni. He’s yet another example of a ChemE grad who has gone on to have a major impact on chemical engineering practice,” Kenis said. “As department head, I take great pleasure in meeting our graduates and hearing about their accomplishments as well as reconnecting with alumni with whom we’ve lost touch.”
Here’s Ingber’s story written by Deb Aronson.
When he was nine years old, Howard Ingber got a chemistry set for Christmas. At the first explosion, Ingber was hooked.
“Explosions, smoke, gunpowder, sulfur. The kit showed you how to make nitrocellulose (guncotton),” Ingber remembers. “Today you’d have 16 lawyers on your back if you tried to show a kid that.”
Three years later, Ingber got a job as a delivery boy at a pharmacy, where he watched drugs being compounded. Those two experiences convinced Ingber to become a chemist. That is, until he met a chemist who told him he’d be more employable with a degree in chemical engineering. So chemical engineering it was.
Ingber’s first ChemE class — stoichiometry with Professor Thomas Hanratty — didn’t occur until his junior year. Until then, his courses had been identical to those majoring in chemistry.
“Dr. Hanratty was a great teacher,” remembers Ingber. “He instilled in me a love of chemical engineering. I remember he always told us it is not an exact science like algebra.”
As wonderful as his academic experiences were at Illinois, Ingber does not recall any socializing between undergraduate students and professors, despite only 35 BS degrees awarded in 1956.
Still, Ingber always felt indebted to the program. He’d studied under “brilliant people … I couldn’t do what I did without them.” That included, not only professors like Hanratty and Harry Drickamer, but also Ingber’s classmate, John Zahner (BS ’56, MS ’59, PhD ’65 all under Drickamer), “one of the smartest guys I ever knew. He could read a book one time and absorb it all. He could look at a problem and figure out in his head the best path to take to solve it.”
As dedicated to the department as he was, Ingber gradually lost touch with the people there. That is, until department chair, Professor Paul Kenis came along.
“When Dr. Kenis called, it was like a magical thing,” says Ingber. “He was going to be in the Los Angeles area and he wondered if he could come by. It felt so good to be contacted by someone from the department after 63 years. He is a real people person. I only wish I had someone like him in my time.”
Paving the way for process analyzers
Ingber loved chemical engineering. He loved the process equipment (distillation towers, reactors, heat exchangers) and the electronic instrumentation used to control them. He predicted that the slide rules, which the engineering students carried like sabers attached to their belts, would eventually be replaced by digital calculators based on his experience with the ILLIAC, one of the first supercomputers. Imagining that one day the engineers with their slide rules would be replaced with a digital computer, Ingber specialized in the field of control instrumentation.
After graduation, Ingber headed to work with Standard Oil of Indiana. He was in at the “very, very beginning of the implementation of continuous process analyzers.” When a large plant is processing crude oil, for example, operators need to make sure that variables like chemical composition, boiling point, and viscosity are within the proper specifications. Before continuous analyzers, it might take three days after the operator took a sample to receive an analysis from the plant lab. If the sample wasn’t up to specification, thousands of barrels of product might need to be blended or processed again. Continuous process analyzer data, which the operator had confidence in, were absolutely critical to the bottom line, Ingber said.
About three years after he graduated from Illinois, Ingber discovered California.
“I had a Jaguar XK 140 convertible and I visited a relative in Los Angeles,” says Ingber. “I was driving with the top down on New Year’s Eve and I said to myself, ‘this is where my car belongs!’”
Ingber moved to Los Angeles and began a successful career as a salesman of continuous process analyzers.
But again and again, he’d observe that a new plant might have 130 analyzers and only three would work correctly at start-up. By the time the analyzers were operational, it was too late and operators ran the plant without them.
The problem, he realized, was that although the engineering drawings were correct, field pipefitters who installed 6-24 inch pipe often did not appreciate some of the nuances of bending and installing one-eighth to one-quarter inch stainless steel tubing.
Ingber pioneered the idea of pre-packaging all of the small-diameter piping, various electrical conduits, and terminal boxes associated with the analyzers in a common “house.” This self-contained unit enabled control of key factors like temperature and tubing installation. By assembling the houses in a controlled environment, Ingber’s team could troubleshoot and train plant maintenance staff in less stressful conditions than at plant start-up. Refinery projects went from having three analyzers working at start up to having almost all analyzers working at start up. This saved companies hundreds of millions of dollars in off-spec product and Ingber’s company was in high demand.
To design, manufacture, and install these integrated systems, he bought a control panel manufacturing company, and began to sell integrated analyzer systems. Within six years, the company grew from two employees to 180.
In the early 1970s, he sold his company to Envirotec and Ingber moved his family to Paris and worked for Comsip Entreprise, a French company, to start a new division and spread the gospel in Europe and South Africa.
“I felt a kind of missionary zeal to convince people that this was the way to install analyzers,” he says. “I was like the Johnny Appleseed of prepackaging.”
He was invited to China in 1979 to speak about continuous process analyzers. The Chinese had tried to reverse engineer the analyzers, but they didn’t understand the principles, Ingber says. He spoke in Shanghai, Peking, and Nanking and visited many refineries and chemical plants and did not find one working analyzer. “At one refinery they had a guest book for visitors to leave a comment about their visit, but it was almost empty. The only other comment was that of (fellow Illinois alumnus) Arnold O. Beckman.”
Ingber’s biggest project—and the largest single processing plant ever built at the time—was SASOL 2 and 3 in South Africa, with engineering contractor Fluor. The plant made gasoline, town gas, and wax from coal, but in SASOL 1 only a few analyzers were working. Ingber’s part of the project—the analyzers, installation and training—cost $250 million. After that job, Ingber, who was 45 years old, retired. But five years later he was bored and divorced, so he went back to work, going to Japan to spread his gospel.
Ingber is proud of his achievements but also dismissive. “It’s just a technique,” he says. “It doesn’t have my name on it.” But in the same breath he’ll say, “It’s especially satisfying that that’s how people install process analyzers all around the world. Now it’s the industry standard.”
Meanwhile, ever the problem solver, Ingber also applied his continuous process analysis expertise to the problem of cigar storage. Ingber, a former cigar smoker, appreciated the joy of a good cigar and the disappointment of a dried out one. He developed an electronic humidifier, Cigar Oasis, which maintains the humidor within one or two degrees of humidity. This he undertook even though he had given up smoking years earlier. That problem-solving urge is hard to suppress.
Additional photos/notes courtesy of Ingber: