Alumni Profile: Ken Comer
While completing his Ph.D. in computational multi-phase flow analysis at North Carolina State University, Ken Comer had a lot of ideas as to the companies or government labs where he might find a job. A diaper maker wasn’t one of them.
“When they called me up and asked me if I wanted to interview for a job at Procter and Gamble, I thought, ‘Procter and Gamble? They’re making paper towels and diapers. Why would they be doing modeling?” says Comer, now a computational fluid flow analyst at the company’s Corporate Engineering Technology Laboratory in West Chester, Ohio.
The multinational consumer product maker, with about 100,000 employees worldwide, produces nearly 300 brands, many of which are household names, including Tide, Swiffer, Pampers, Clairol, Tampax and Pringles. As Comer now makes clear, Procter and Gamble (P&G) is highly dependent on engineering and research and development savvy in order to prosper in the highly competitive consumer products business. Last year, P&G spent about $1.7 billion on R&D.
“In the last three years, modeling and simulation has really taken off here, basically because modeling has come of age,” says Comer, who was hired by P&G in 1998, prior to completing his Ph.D. “Our goal is to make our products faster and cheaper. Modeling helps deliver that, especially quicker development and cheaper and faster processing.”
As a member of a corporate group of half-a-dozen modelers tackling problems across the P&G empire, Comer says he’s faced with an exciting variety of fluid mechanics problems, many of them outside his particular expertise. His job isn’t to always personally know the answer to a problem, but to know how to find it.
This means acting as a bridge to the larger modeling community and maintaining a broad network of government lab and university researchers, including key contacts made during the DOE CSGF program. His role is also to scour the research horizon for emerging technologies that can provide a competitive leg up, all the while keeping P&G’s trade secrets under wraps.
And, when it comes to finding answers, speed is of the essence.
“One of the first things I noticed is the speed with which you have to turn around projects,” Comer says. “In a lot of our projects, somebody needs results within a short period of time. Instead of years, we’re talking months or weeks. In industry [as compared to graduate school research] you have to make a conscious decision about the level of accuracy you can afford in order to deliver the results. Because even if you have the perfect results, if it’s after the time when the decision had to be made, then you’ve delivered useless results.”
Comer says he thrives on the mix of near-term and longer-term projects that he must juggle. The more immediate projects, though not always the most technically challenging, provide what he calls ‘brain candy’—that quick, positive boost from seeing the tangible benefits of your work.
One such modeling project involved his group’s input on a new system to improve the performance of a paper machine that was being slowed by dust control problems. Keeping these machines, which cost up to a half-billion dollars each, running 24/7 is crucial to the bottom line. To try and minimize the machine’s downtime, the modelers worked with the engineering consultants to simulate their designs and provide suggestions for improvements.
“When they put the system in, it worked perfectly. Our modeling had a direct impact on the business and you could see it,” says Comer.