As one of Philadelphia’s most famous residents, Benjamin Franklin, once expressed it: ‘An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest’. However, innovation also brings to mind another of his quotations: ‘Energy and persistence conquer all’.
Innovation means different things to different people. Julio Ottino, dean of the Robert McCormick school of engineering and applied Science at NorthWestern University, US, chose to focus on creativity – which he defined as making sense of things and adapting to change. The process of innovation is accelerating, he pointed out, noting that the number of years it takes for major new technologies to penetrate 50% of the market has gone from 70 years for the telephone, for example, to just four years for the iPod.
‘Design innovation is the entry point to whole brain thinking,’ Ottino said, pointing out that the left brain is the seat for mathematical thinking, while the right brain has a metaphorical approach. ‘Design innovation is a structured process that can be applied across disciplines,’ he added.
But he warned about arriving at solutions too quickly. ‘Analytical tools are a critical edge in solving problems, but there is a danger in converging on the solution too quickly,’ he said. ‘You need to stand back and look at the whole picture.’ His watch words are ‘adapt and adopt’; to be creative one needs to learn to see simplicity in complexity and vice versa.
Ottino also attempted to explode a few myths. Creativity isn’t based on a burst of inspiration, he said, quoting Einstein: ‘The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.’ He also compared technical and scientific creativity with art, saying that many versions precede the final one. While science has been an accumulation of ideas, he commented that technology is a series. ‘No technology ever dies, unlike science,’ he said.
A second myth is that creativity is effortless. ‘Innovation is over-rated,’ Ottino said, ‘you have to turn up, it is about hard work.’ He pointed out that the artist Andy Warhol produced an average of 1.25 objects/day.
Others myths he debunked are that artistic creativity thrives in isolation, and that it is a young person’s game. While young geniuses tend to be around 20-30 years old, experimenters are generally much older, from 40 to 90 years old. The average ages for Nobel prize-winners are 50 in physics and 46 in chemistry, he added.
Ottino believes that tackling problems without clear solutions requires empathy, creativity, teamwork, brainstorming, risk-taking, humility and resilience.
To Fred Fester, chairman of WR Grace, and chair, SCI America, innovation means the ability to take ideas into action. ‘There are lots of people with ideas,’ he said, ‘but the ability to implement them is crucial. And the willingness of customers, academe etc, is different, while the risk profile has changed – with corporations and governments having higher risk profiles. The result is that the ability to take an idea commercial is harder.’
Fester believes that in the chemical industry, scientists are talking more to the commercial side of their companies, to ‘convince and sell’, as he expressed it. He notes that there is a need to help innovations through communication and working collaboratively. ‘It is about applying speciality chemical company principles,’ he said, which involves talking to the customer and developing solutions for his/her issues/problems/requirements, rather than the commodity chemical approach producing large quantities of chemicals and offering them for sale.
This will change the way that chemical companies operate, he said, citing the experience of WR Grace, which he believes went too far in decentralising its activities. Although there was a need to keep technical services decentralised, the company had created a centralised development laboratory facility with some 400 PhD researchers. Such a core of expertise is needed, says Fester, but there also needs to be closer communication between these researchers and customers.
To put this into effect, Fester said his company has stayed the same size rather than seeking acquisitions and has in fact spun off activities, such as the construction business. As regards possible acquisitions, he said WR Grace is looking for companies with this communications approach and functions that offer scalability, but most of all his company is looking to take advantage of commonality after a period of extreme diversity. For the future, WR Grace’s focus will be on catalysts, materials, technology licensing, such as Unipol polypropylene and organic growth.
At Eastman Chemicals, VP, advanced materials technology, Dante Rutstrom, noted that in addition to a focus on Asia, there is a ‘doubling down’ on R&D, ‘at a time when other companies are reducing [their commitment],’ he added. Eastman’s innovation imperative is based on sustainability, he said, currently based on a hub and spoke approach – a mostly centralised R&D hub with distributed satellite applications and technical service; although the company is moving towards a decentralised and globalised spread of R&D facilities. In Asia, for example, he pointed out that Eastman has two technical centres – Singapore and Shanghai – and the emphasis is on local products designed for local markets, requiring a local presence and a local mind-set.
The pros for the hub and spoke approach include the fact it is a cost-effective way to get close to customers, while following a corporate infrastructure approach like manufacturing facilities, which are co-located with other corporate functions, such as sales and marketing.
He believes it is also easier to build a case for further investment, although he also recognises that globalisation can dilute R&D spend. On the cons side, he highlighted a lack of access to sophisticated analytical instrumentation and services, pilot plants, and expert advice. There are also talent implications, with potential problems for the hiring and retention of staff, particularly for management roles, and the provision of coaching, mentoring and development.
Rutstrom presented some examples of how the Eastman approach is working, including a partnership with Chung –Ang University in Korea to develop the 3D printing of prosthetic hands for children in Asia. Eastman is also working with Philips Brazil to solve problems with the jars used with kitchen blenders, while a collaboration with three companies on two continents in six cities, has led to development of a monocoat polyester resin system, TetraShield, as clear- and topcoats for vehicle protection, with an adoption time of 12 months for automotive OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), compared with the usual three-five years.
Innovation is intimately linked with markets, Rutstrum believes, and companies must be aware of not just those key markets but also adjacent markets. When acquiring new businesses where Eastman is not currently represented, he added that it is important to leverage the existing technology and expand into those new markets.
Regarding intellectual property (IP), Rutstrum referred to concerns about ‘leakage’ of IP, particularly in developing economies; however, IP protection ‘is not equally available even in the US,’ he said. ‘It is challenging in China, but isn’t an obstacle across different sites and teams.’
George Barclay, global R&D director at Dow Water & Process Solutions, also emphasised the need for communication, especially for travel ‘to put faces to names’ when operating globally. In terms of information flow, he said his business is operating with an information research group to get data into one central location. Dow also has a centralised IP review that identifies in which countries it will be filed to offer the best value.
When considering innovation in financially challenged markets, Barclay said it is important to look for the most cost-effective solutions. These should offer a value proposition rather than a low-cost, less cost-effective, solution.
From nanomaterial production to computation
Presentations ranged from using computation to understand and design new materials for extreme environments to the use of continuous flow synthesis of colloidal nanoparticles in ionic liquid droplets as a safe and sustainable nanomanufacturing method.
Donald Brenner, from the department of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University, pointed out that computation can reach conditions that are difficult or impossible for experimentation, such as detonations, rocket nozzles and nuclear reactor cores. His toolbox of computational methods includes first principle density functional theory; semi-empirical electronic structure; molecular dynamics simulations; hybrid atomic + continuum mesoscale; and analytic modelling.
These methods have been used, for example, to study the formation of the mineral Bonaccordite (Ni2FeBO5) on the fuel rods in nuclear reactors, advanced light-weight aluminium alloy vehicle armour, and engineering entropy for ultra-high temperature applications.
With increasing use of nanotechnology products in the home, Richard Brutchey, from the department of chemistry at the University of Southern California, pointed out that gains derived from engineered nanomaterials are offset by the methods currently used to manufacture them.
Generally these materials are produced in batch processes that can be difficult to scale up. Moving to a continuous flow process may allow automation, providing efficient passive mixing, effective heat transfer and reduced environmental and safety risks. It could also pave the way for 3D printing to fabricate the devices.