I am reading Elon Musk’s biography and found an interesting notion about his way of manufacturing space rockets. He puts the innovative engineers, who design the new rockets and the construction and testing employees all in the same building. When a problem appears in the new rocket the engineers involved know it immediately and propose a change in the design. Musk’s rockets were much lower in cost than all other companies. So, he won the competition battle and put many satellites with his rockets into space.

Musk explains why he chose this innovation method by a metaphor: “If your hand is on a hotplate, you immediately withdraw. If you are away from the hotplate and someone tells you that the plate is hot, your reaction will be way slower“.

I think that this innovation method can also be applied to the process industries. For that it is important that chemical engineers are located at the plant site and have daily connections with operation. Here is my example to illustrate it:

In my career at Shell, I worked for 5 years at Shell Chemicals manufacturing site Pernis, The Netherlands as technology adviser to a large chemical plant in the period 1987-1992. Every morning I went to the plant and listened to the process operators. Very soon I understood the plant and the way it was operated. One particular distillation column was the bottleneck of the whole plant for its maximum production capacity. So, the column was operated near the flooding point. This made it unstable causing temperature changes in top. I did an analysis and found from theory and a flow sheet model run, which increasing the pressure of the column, the flooding point would move away from the actual operation point. I made a test program of the new conditions, discussed it with every operator and plant management. All agreed to the test plan. One operator said to me: Jan, presently we control the top temperature, but in the past, we controlled the bottom temperature. If the test run is successful and the column becomes stable again, we can turn back to bottom temperature control, which is a better option for bottom flow composition control. The test run was successful. Turning back to the bottom temperature control made it even more stable. The operators were relieved about this change.

After this test run, I proposed a new test run now for a 5 % higher production capacity. The operators and management quickly agreed to the test run. It was a success. With the higher capacity the plant made several million guilders per year extra profit.

This improvement could only be achieved because I was so close to the plant operation.

I welcome comments and additional ideas about this intimate innovation method for process industries.