Dow Chemical, Eastman, Eli Lilly and AkzoNobel Incite Innovation

Companies are relying on a variety of strategies to foster creativity

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Long-term success — thriving, not just surviving — in the global chemical industry requires ongoing innovation. So, major manufacturers including Dow Chemical, Midland, Mich., Eli Lilly, Indianopolis, Ind., Eastman Chemical, Kingsport, Tenn., and AkzoNobel, Chicago, Ill., are adopting novel strategies to ensure good ideas become good business as quickly as possible.

Dow, which employs 6,000 research and development (R&D) personnel overall — 20% at the corporate level and 80% in different business units — has high expectations for idea generation across its entire R&D organization.

"Generating ideas and then supporting them onwards is key to the culture here at Dow; we are always looking for ideas for continuous development and 15–20% of a researcher's time is really spent on ideation. Typical examples of such new ideas include new control schemes, improved gas-phase modeling, new product solutions for customers, and new process solutions such as those delivered from the Dow Water & Process Solutions business," says Billy B. Bardin, R&D director for the Feedstocks and Energy Division, Freeport, Tex.

New ideas typically start with proofs of concepts. "There are funds set aside for these. Dow then uses a stage gate process to move proof[s] of concepts forward into development. To begin, a very informal, unbureaucratic process is initiated whereby the engineer/scientist concerned presents an overview of the idea to a small group of senior technologists and fellows. He or she would typically explain why they think the idea is worth pursuing and how they want to develop it. For ideas that are approved there is a budget set aside. The early steps are intentionally not very intensive because it is essential that we keep the curiosity of the team going. Again, it is our expectation that they continue to be curious in their work and identify new ideas," adds Florian Schattenmann, global R&D director, Core Research & Development, Midland.

Once it becomes clear that a project will be resource-intensive, the company follows a well organized path forward. "For example, determining the potential market value of a new technology needs to be well understood for it to be worth pursuing. Also, a clear technical approach has to be established and risk assessments have to be carried out. Based on these data, a resource plan is developed. As the project moves through the stage gates, other functions critical to success such as manufacturing and EH&S [environmental, health and safety] get increasingly involved," notes Schattenmann (Figure 1).

"Funding is based on research prioritization. If a particular idea has greater impact then it is much more likely to be funded," says Bardin.

This strategy yields thousands of ideas every year across the company's technology and manufacturing sites. "In that sense, it is a little bit like the classic example of drug development in the pharmaceuticals industry; a large number of drug candidates lead to the one that reaches the consumer. Similarly, here at Dow, we have thousands of ideas screened on a yearly basis to reach those that are successfully implemented," he explains.

"The businesses have so many ideas that they have to be screened very, very quickly so we can optimize resource utilization on those items that are most promising. We want a lot of options in the idea hopper," adds Schattenmann.

That such a strategy produces game-changers is amply illustrated in the company's chlorine chemistry operations. A couple of years ago, a researcher had an idea about the application of fundamental kinetic gas-phase modeling. Using 20,000 novel chemical reactions and detailed quantum-mechanical calculations for chlorination and cracking chemistry, a model was developed that could simulate five different processes used in nine different manufacturing plants. The first application of the model involved optimization of a novel reactor for allyl chloride production. The commercial reactor, designed based on the calculations and constructed without going through a pilot-testing phase, provided a 6–8% yield increase, just as the model predicted. The model also has led to the development of a liquid feed injection system that doubled the company's capacity for chloroform production.

"That single idea is now a critical part of our chlorination organics business and Dow is now the world leader in this kind of modeling," notes Bardin.

Eli Lilly views its Innovation Days as a critical source of new ideas. "This is an informal day and provides teams the chance to present a proposal and then run a project on a subject of interest. If ideas emerge from this short-term event that might take months or even years to investigate, then the company uses one of many more-formal programs to get the teams and investment together to further develop the project forward. As the project continues to progress, our management group is engaged for continued capital approval," explains Kenneth Savin, advisor for innovation and technology, small molecule design and development.

The latest Innovation Day took place in September, with the next slated for February 2014. "The preparation involved for some projects is quite extensive and we have found that six to nine months apart is about the ideal time," says Savin.

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