I work in the research and applications product development laboratory at AlliedSignal's Buffalo Research Lab. I usually work independently, although depending on the project I may have a technician working for me. What I like most about the lab is the small scale of the equipment. I am very involved with all aspects of my experiment from design to construction to data collection and analysis. There is a satisfaction that comes from personally seeing a project through to its completion.
Most of my 11 years here have been spent in our Physical Properties group. We measure thermodynamic and transport properties, primarily for refrigerant compounds. I don't mean to scare off any students, but it's a lot like P-Chem lab, only the pay is much better and I don't pull an all-nighter to write the report! Also, it's very interesting because we use physical properties to identify compounds that meet a specific application, for example solvents, foam blowing agents, refrigerants, etc. The performance that the customer experiences is mainly derived from physical property characteristics, so important business decisions are based on our data. A more recent aspect of my job is to provide technical support to existing customers. This interaction gives me a good understanding of the customers' expectations and experience, which allows me to develop products more tailored to their needs.
I wish someone had made it clear how much plumbing is involved in a ChemE's work, and maybe let us try some. In all of our labs at UB, the equipment was already assembled our specific experiment. In a real lab, you have to either modify an existing setup or build your own apparatus from scratch. Sometimes we feel a little like McGyver.
Another invaluable skill is on-line library searching. Back in "the olden days," the people in the library (SEL) reserved this service for professors and grad students. Working in a research environment, I have to check the existing literature before I run off to reinvent the wheel. You get a lot more information from performing the search personally (if you are good at it) than from sending a request to the library, because you can scan an overview of all the literature on your topic to see what specific areas are getting a lot of attention from fellow researchers.
A wonderful surprise early in my career was to be published. As a BS ChemE, I had assumed that only master's degree and PhD holders received this honor. It was so exciting to come across my own name during a literature search!