National Engineers Week alumni feature: Hank Wright, P.E., '68
Electrical engineering alumnus, Hank Wright, P.E., ‘68.
WVU Tech graduate Hank Wright, P.E., ‘68, grew up in St. Albans, West Virginia, and now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the years between the two, his nearly five decades of work has impacted projects around the world.
Wright uncovered his skills in electrical engineering with the help of his high school math teacher, who immediately tied his mathematical talents and interests to the field.
“My math supervisor said I should go into electrical engineering. I didn’t know anything about electricity. All I knew was that you plug stuff in and it works. That was the extent of my understanding. I don’t know what she knew, but she was right. It was the field for me,” he said.
Wright went on to study the discipline at WVU Tech and graduated from the University in 1968. During his time at Tech, Wright worked summers at Appalachian Power. After graduation, he began his career with an engineering position at Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical).
His independent spirit, however, led him to seek various types of work throughout his career, including the launch of a first-of-its-kind process control computer systems group within an engineering consulting firm.
“A client of ours was struggling with a control system and asked us to help, so we went on site and lived with the system for six weeks. We fixed it, and off of that experience, we decided to start a process control group,” said Wright.
“We were doing all kinds of fascinating work. Programmable controllers. Human machine interface – we just called it computer graphics back then. I was able to guide this group for a dozen years and worked with just about every industry on the planet,” he said.
One of those industries was aluminum production, which provided Wright an opportunity to work on one of the most memorable projects of his career.
In the 1970s, a metals manufacturer was constructing two massive smelter facilities at an aluminum refinery in Venezuela. The $1.3 billion project required a process control system that would allow operators to monitor activity along seven “potlines,” or series of massive vats that use electricity and carbon to extract aluminum from aluminum oxide.
“These things were huge. There were 180 in series at four volts apiece and the potline operated at a load of 176,000 amps. That’s a little bigger than the socket in the wall,” he said. [For reference, the average American home is serviced at between 100 and 200 amps].
“We did the computer control system that optimized those potlines. It was a lot of energy in one place, and we had seven of them. That’s over a million amps of energy. We hadn’t done much of anything in that industry, but we didn’t have reason to believe we couldn’t. We designed the system, built it, sent it to Venezuela, started it up and it worked,” he said.
Wright said the Venezuela project stands out to him because of the size and complexity of the endeavor, and because he was able to work on aspects of the project that were unique at the time.
“The potlines were a high electric field environment, so you couldn’t use most electronics out there because they wouldn’t work very well. To overcome this, we used the PA system and broadcast announcements using synthesized speech as a way to communicate which of the pots in the series was acting up. The system shined light through Mylar film that was etched with a speech pattern barcode. It had a female voice. I’d never seen that before, but we did it, and it worked,” he said.
Wright said that features like synthesized speech pale in comparison to the technological advances in the modern electrical engineering scene. He thinks this technological integration is something students going into electrical engineering will be looking forward to as their biggest opportunity and their biggest challenge.
“Smart grid, plugin vehicles, self-driving vehicles. Those are some of the things on the cutting-edge that engineers will have an opportunity to work with in the future,” he said.
“The real challenge in the industry is how to overcome the problems you’re creating by advancing technology. More and more computers are doing more and more things, but sometimes at the expense of security. New engineers are going to have to find that balance between making things more advanced and protecting those advancements from new threats,” he said.
In addition to working within the movement to integrate computers into electrical systems, Wright said the next generation of electrical engineers will need to understand that engineering is about more than research and design.
“You’ll need people skills in this path. If you’re really successful, there’s a good chance you’re going to have to manage people, projects, time and money. You’ll need to be able to communicate, so prepare for that as you go into this. As a successful engineer, you’re not going to spend your days at the same desk every day,” he said.
Engineering graduates heading into the working world will also need to be lifelong learners, Wright said. They’ll need to take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and Principles of Practice and Engineering exam to become a professional engineer (PE). They will also need to take continuing courses on the various codes that govern fields such as mechanical and electrical engineering.
It’s a long road, but for Wright, it’s a proven path that produces quality engineers. He said it also makes for some interesting career experiences.
“There’s this thing about experience – you can’t get it until you get it. There are no shortcuts, so you need to find a career that can offer you a variety of opportunities. Engineering is a career that can do that,” he said. “I’ve got 47 years of experience, not one year of experience 47 times.”
These days, Wright is in a state of what he calls “semi-retirement,” where he takes on projects with an engineering firm in the Raleigh area. He’s also an active member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the American Solar Energy Society (ASES).
A lifelong athlete, Wright spent some years as a middle-distance runner and coach, a United States Volleyball Association volleyball player and a Sports Car Club of America road rally driver. He’s also a member of the United States Golf Association (USGA). Wright is an accomplished drummer as well, and spends a few nights a month with his band playing gigs in the Raleigh area where he lives with his wife, Paulette.
He was recently elected president of the board of directors of the Tech Golden Bear Alumni Association and is advising a philanthropic group that takes on energy, water, healthcare and education projects in developing nations. He also likes to maintain relationships with those he has mentored throughout the years.
“I like mentoring. It’s one of the most rewarding things about what I do in my profession. Challenging them. Showing them that there might be a better way to do something. I still get calls all the time asking ‘what do I need to do here, Hank?’ It’s very rewarding to keep them moving toward the goal,” he said.
Wright credits his desire to give back to his unique career path and his time at Tech.
“Tech is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. Tech gave me the tools to live well, have a lot of fun, do some rewarding work and to be successful,” he said.