Cementing Her Place


By Richard Lim


23 September 2007


A Young Engineer Is Building a Niche For Herself In a Career With a Difference.  WORKING in a cement plant can be taxing, especially if you are employed by a major player in the industry. 


The fact that you are one of only a handful of female engineers in a largely male-dominated field will make things all the more tricky.  But R. Dhynna, 26, is certainly not allowing any of this to get in the way of her doing her job. She obtained her Bachelors in Chemical Engineering from Universiti Technologi Malaysia (UTM) in Skudai back in 2004 and joined Lafarge Malayan Cement Bhd soon after.  


The first graduate of Lafarge's Young Engineers Programme (LYEP), Dhynna got in touch with the French-based firm after spotting an advertisement in the papers.  Dhynna seen her uniform safety gear. Behind her the preheater tower at Lafarge's plant in Kanthan. SAIFUL BAHRI The Star. Her interest, she recalls, was piqued by the requirements specified and she saw the LYEP as a worthwhile challenge. 


"The cement industry is hardly the ideal job for most women, but I was curious to know how it would be and I'm really glad I applied," she says.  Her first six months under the two-year LYEP were largely assignment based and done at Larfarge's plant in Kanthan, Perak, just 20km from Ipoh.  


Among other things, the two-year programme included formal training, individual work and coaching by immediate seniors. She was also required to meet people from other countries to enhance her experience of working with those of different worldviews. 


Towards the end of her training, Dhynna was promptly sent to Beijing to observe cement manufacturing in the context of China's booming construction industry.  She was also sent to Lafarge's plant in Chongqing, in Sichuan province, which apparently bears a great resemblance to the plant in Kanthan.   "Language was the main problem for me in China," she confesses. "Thankfully, some of my colleagues spoke English and they helped me settle in." 


All in a day's work
As a process engineer, Dhynna is specifically in charge of pyro processing, which involves the preheating and burning of treated raw materials - limestone, clay, sand and iron ore.  A standard day for will see her making a 40m climb up the preheater, a structure that towers more than 60m high to make a gas analysis and measure the gas flow. 


The preheater contains different sections named cyclones and she has to make the necessary checks on each cyclone she is assigned to. Raw materials pass through the cyclones before entering a massive rotating furnace called a kiln - incidentally, also the world's largest piece of moving industrial equipment, with diameters ranging from some 5m to 7m.  The flames in the kiln reaches 1,400°C to 1,500°C, roughly one-third the temperature on the sun's surface, turning the raw materials into a molten mix. 


As Dhynna puts it: "It is very, very hot where I work!"   Elaborating further on day-to-day conditions at the plant, she adds: "I love my job but its requirements deny me the opportunity to dress up and look pretty!"  Though it can be frustrating not being able to look her best at the workplace, where she is usually seen in uniform and safety gear, she actually finds something positive about the situation.  Dhynna monitoring the status of the operations with her colleagues at the control room of the plant.


"The uniform saves me a lot of time deciding on what to wear," she says philosophically. And she finds added satisfaction in being able to fall back on her university education when on the job.  "Process line manufacturing is related to my chemical engineering background and it has been fulfilling to apply what I learned in university at work," she says. 


Dhynna attributes her passion for engineering to a keen interest in science.  In fact, the former student of Methodist Girls School, Klang, opted not take up a spot at Temasek Junior College in Singapore under the Asean scholarship programme the moment UTM offered her a place to do engineering.   "I decided to turn the scholarship down as I could do engineering immediately instead of spending two years doing my A-Levels," she recalls.  "My parents were very disappointed at first as the scholarship is prestigious but I'm happy with the way things have turned out." 


Not a man's world
In retrospect, Dhynna's time at Lafarge has been largely rewarding but her first days as an official employee were anything but.  "I first joined Lafarge when the plant was undergoing stoppage," she says.  Stoppage signifies the total shutdown of a plant's operations in order to repair and replace machinery as it is subject to a tremendous amount of wear and tear.  Stoppage normally lasts 10 to 12 days.   "Lafarge usually hires specialists from other companies to handle maintenance and there were about 400 extra males on the site then," she recalls with a laugh.  That certainly made her first days at work a memorable experience. 


"Yes, I received my fair share of stares and snide remarks," says Dhynna, adding that she got through that period by just ignoring the unwanted attention.  She is also of the view that a helping hand could very well drive one to greater heights.  "I have the opportunity of working with some fabulous people," she enthuses.  For instance, she says, there is a South Korean senior plant manager who has given her ample room to learn.  While some other senior staff may be reluctant to throw new engineers into the deep end, this one has shown a great level of faith in providing her with many opportunities to take on responsibilities.  


Moving on, Dhynna recommends that budding engineers obtain as much field exposure as they can.  And despite the fact that life on a cement plant may not be easy, she feels that more women should go into the field.  Female engineers, she notes, should not to feel out of place regardless of the state of affairs in the industry. 


"It is an equal opportunity world out there and if you set your heart on it, nothing can stop you from pursuing your dreams."