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Knowledge Sharing: Umbrella Groups Reign

Organizations foster collaboration to tackle industry challenges

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

Third parties can provide an effective means to pool the knowledge and insights of multiple chemical companies or jointly fund projects to address areas of mutual interest. Many engineers undoubtedly know of several such umbrella organizations — e.g., the Abnormal Situation Management Consortium, the Center for Chemical Process Safety, the Center for Operator Performance, Fractionation Research and Heat Transfer Research. Other groups such as the Green Chemistry Institute (GCI), the European Process Safety Centre (EPSC) and the North East of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC) also are playing a significant role.

The GCI, which is run by the American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C., develops roundtables focused on fostering collaborations in different industry sectors. The first, the Pharmaceutical Roundtable (GCIPR), began in 2005. It came about as a result of discussions between Merck, Eli Lilly and Pfizer about how they could collaborate with one another in the pre-competitive space to support research, education, global collaboration and projects/tools that would assist company scientists and engineers to integrate green chemistry into their R&D activities.

“What we found overall was strong support for technical efforts that were very expensive and/or long-term for companies to achieve on their own [Figure 1]. That became the model for the roundtables,” notes GCI director David Constable.

So, the GCI identifies a sector and works with industry “champions” to coalesce the roundtables and companies involved. This would include, for example, preparing a preliminary business plan and setting out the strategic priorities. It typically takes up to two years to build trust and convince company representatives that working collaboratively makes sense.

Launched in 2010, the Chemical Manufacturer’s Roundtable (CMR) posed more of a challenge because the industry includes commodity chemical makers that often use high-volume continuous processes, and specialty chemical manufacturers that frequently rely on batch and semi-batch operations.

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“The latter, like pharmaceutical companies, are using similar unit operations and we are finding very much more success with them,” says Constable.

Because of this, these companies — including Solvay, Merck, DuPont, Sigma Aldrich, Albemarle, Arizona Chemical and Dixie Chemical — are better able to exploit bio-derived platform molecules. “They are also much more open to new ideas for collaboration, for example in the developing of toolkits like those developed by the GCIPR, e.g. solvent selection, reagent guides, etc,” he explains.

Key Initiative

Members of the CMR meet monthly to discuss projects and progress. However, more-frequent meetings have been convened to support the Alternative Separations to Distillation Technology (AltSep) roadmap development project.

Recognizing that distillation at the heart of most chemical processes accounts for more than 35% of the energy used in U.S. chemical manufacturing, the GCI and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers have joined forces to work with innovators to find ways to jump-start the industrial application of less-energy-intensive separation processes. This effort has attracted a $500,000 award from the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia program.

The first step in the project is creating an innovation roadmap for advancing the rational design and predictable and widespread industrial application of sustainable separation processes.

“Although this project started in July last year, its genesis was two years before that when the chemical manufacturing folks were looking for sweet spots for collaboration. Distillation was one of these; it clicked with everyone immediately. Then the grant opportunity came along and work has been at a furious pace since then,” says Constable.

The size of the grant significantly surpasses that of previous ones won by any of the roundtables. It has prompted the GCI to take a new direction in its collaboration work. Constable explains: “Our idea is to try and grow this into something of a government/industry/academia consortium and we are actively talking about how to do this now. This is a very difficult task, since industry wants solutions yesterday, yet fundamental research on enabling technology is not seen as part of a core strength of a business.”

Another development came this March with the launch of the Biochemical Technology Leadership Roundtable. This aims to identify and address key scientific challenges such as those relating to scaling-up biochemical technologies in a sustainable way. (See: “Group Aims to Bolster Biotech.”)

However, cautions Constable, getting a roundtable up and running is a very slow process and requires a lot of time and effort from all parties involved: “It’s a matter of maintaining relationships and pulling together a critical mass where people think they are getting a lot of benefit from the collaboration. But it’s gotten harder over time because the chemical industry has lost a lot of depth over recent years. So there are fewer people involved in chemical processing and a lot of the work has shifted East. It becomes far harder to put together these kinds of collaborations when they become transnational.”

Safety Success

Promoting industry collaborations both Europe-wide and world-wide is a cornerstone of the efforts of the European Process Safety Centre (EPSC), Rugby, U.K., which celebrates its silver jubilee next year. Today, its 40 members and associate members include companies such as Dow, Eastman, DuPont, BASF and AkzoNobel.

Companies join because they wish to learn from one another and avoid having accidents, notes EPSC operations manager Lee Allford — they realize a headline-making incident at one company tarnishes the whole industry.

“There is a moral and reputational imperative to share experience and knowledge within and across the sector. The EPSC offers a framework for the sharing of knowledge and support for the process of learning between its members so that they are in better place to improve the management of hazardous substances and high risk activities within their business,” he explains.

How this sharing of experience and knowledge actually happens has evolved over the last 24 years — and continues to evolve today.

Back in the early 1990s, for example, the organization’s working groups tended to focus on technical and science-led projects such as toxic-gas dispersion models. This gradually gave way to systems thinking and concept-led work on safety management systems and safety performance measurement.

More recently, the EPSC has turned its attention to the impacts on process safety management of, e.g., the emergence of chemical parks where several manufacturers share the same site, company mergers and acquisitions, and, more generally, the prevailing culture of how organizations do business.

“In the future, the EPSC is likely to turn its attention not only to effective process safety, but also efficient process safety — for example, how process hazard analysis studies can be performed more rapidly whilst still retaining their quality,” adds Allford.

Another interesting evolution over time is the chemical industry’s decreasing focus on accident databases. Allford says three factors likely contributed to the decline in recent years. First, overly complicated earlier databases might have put off users, especially those in the design community. Second, the Internet now allows users to get information with the click of a mouse — accessibility no database can compete with. Third, today companies place greater emphasis on quality rather than quantity — reflecting the increasing acknowledgement that knowing a few accidents well is better than having relatively trivial details on many.

At the same time, however, he believes organizations now working on the next family of accident databases will address the shortcomings of earlier models and offer a step-change improvement in user experience.

Another growth area is in standards and guidance (Figure 2): “As Trevor Kletz suggested, corporate memory is an illusion and probably the best way to learn from accidents is to codify lessons into standards and guidance for designers. That way, the learning is kept alive, especially as standards are reviewed and revised at formal intervals and are available to the entire sector. Once the designed plant is up and running, operational teams are then required to understand the design intent of plants, their hazards and the measures which are in place to control these hazards. And, of course, to know what to do when these do not work as intended — in other words to have an emergency plan.” (For Kletz’s thoughts on lessons industry must learn or too frequently forgets, see: “Bhopal Leaves a Lasting Legacy.”)

Allford believes that sharing of knowledge and experience will become even more important to the chemical industry over the coming years as process safety reporting is introduced: “Such information was not available a decade ago but now with published standards on process safety performance such as API [RP] 754 and a recently agreed proposal for reporting across the global chemical sector this data will start to become available within the next 5–10 years.”

Such data inevitably will drive improvements in process safety, along with even greater need for the sorts of networks of knowledge and experience sharing that EPSC has built over the years, he reckons.

Mustering A Cluster

The need to share best practices and innovation was the driving force behind the establishment in 2004 of the North East of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC), Wilton, U.K., in the country’s chemical industry heartland.

While working on an MBA during his time at Eastman Chemical, Kingsport, Tenn., NEPIC CEO Stan Higgins was introduced to the principles of industrial measurement and collaboration through clustering developed by Michael E. Porter of the Harvard Business School, Cambridge, Mass.

These principles have governed the growth of the NEPIC ever since. The organization focuses on developing a world-class, high-value process industry cluster based on innovative, sustainable high-tech manufacturing. Sectors covered include petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, fine and speciality chemicals, rubbers, plastics and biotechnology — and their respective supply chains.

“At the initiation of the cluster, it was vitally important that a number of leading companies in our sector were on board. Once that was achieved, the others rapidly followed their lead. Our initial pitch to get the first companies on board was ‘What needs to be done to grow your company and the wider sector?,’” notes Higgins. Many of the answers to that question called for actions that individual companies themselves could not do or achieve, highlighting the need for a collective effort.

In the first six months, 20–40 companies got involved; this number ballooned to 180 in two years. As a result of NEPIC’s industry and company support and growth programs, particularly increasing supply chain involvement, the number of participating organizations surpassed 700 by 2014.

A leadership team made up of 30 senior industrialists drawn from all disciplines in the chemical industry underpin NEPIC’s activities. This group, which meets quarterly, is supported by a number of smaller strategic thrust teams. These also include senior industrialists from the area but focus on key activities, for example bio-resources, innovation, productivity, integration and skills.

“The importance of any one issue to a company will not be the same as to another and so our thrust-team approach allows a diverse range of topics to be addressed. Our mantra, though, remains to focus our collaborative thrust-team activity, and the limited executive-team resource, on those issues that are vital to the growth and sustainability of the sector while also helping individual members with their specific issues or problems,” notes Higgins.

NEPIC’s efforts also have an international dimension. In March, it signed a collaboration agreement with the Karnataka Drug & Pharmaceutical Association (KDPMA), Bangalore, India. A cluster organization similar to NEPIC, KDPMA represents 72 pharmaceutical manufacturing companies including multinationals such as Astra Zeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, along with many small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs); these companies are involved in all aspects of drug manufacture.

In addition, NEPIC this year has launched three new projects: one involving sharing data across European companies; the second to encourage innovations by SMEs; and the third to collect the mass balances across 46 NEPIC companies to enable the identification of symbiotic opportunities in terms of heat, energy and materials.

“The latter project is a clear indication of our position as a trusted organization for benchmarking and confidential sharing of data amongst member companies,” stresses Higgins.

The idea of industry clusters also is being promoted by the European Union, which in 2009 opened the European Secretariat for Cluster Analysis in Berlin. Today, the organization offers practical advice to cluster management organizations in more than 30 countries.


 Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can email him at Ottewell2sottewell@putman.net.