About half of our innovation consulting projects deal with process innovation. In these projects we are typically challenged with specific problems in the production process, waste stream validation or the need to increase overall process efficiency. Although we work across all sectors & industries it is striking to see that most companies have three pitfalls in common.
Due to the confidential nature of our projects, the examples have been taken from comparable challenges.
1. Historical solutions are taken for granted
When problems appear in production processes they are often solved in an incremental way. Each time a problem is detected, small modifications are made. These modifications can usually be implemented fast, resulting in a limited amount of downtime. Sounds great, right?
Problem is that after some time a tipping point is reached where these minor adaptations are not good enough to solve the problems at hand. At this point it takes guts to rethink the process completely and start from scratch. We are very familiar with the following quote: We have always done it like this, but we honestly don’t know why.
Dry anaerobic digestion, the microbial decomposition of organic waste to methane, was and often is done in non-continuous batch type reactors. Making these reactors work in a continuous way was a point of research for many years. Companies trying to adapt their technology had problems with irregular biomass movement and difficulties separating the methane gas from the solid biomass. Through systematic innovation and by throwing the historical viewing points overboard, companies were able to overcome the shortcomings of the horizontal reactors. The solution was simple and yet radical: changing the reactor orientation. Vertical reactors made easy gas separation and optimal biomass flow possible with a limited amount of space.
Although this insight – switching the orientation of the reactor – sounds simple, it is difficult to challenge dominant logic. In process innovation it is key to ask: “Why?”
2. You only look for solutions within your industry
To solve challenges companies usually look at competitors and stay within the boundaries of their sector: “How have our competitors solved the problem? We should try it as well.“ It is clear that this limits your options to what is known in your industry.
As stated above, we work across different industries. Therefore we have experienced that several companies actually face similar challenges for their specific processes. Some generic challenges we encounter often are about cutting, mixing, sorting, heating, expanding, etc. Companies should map existing solutions and link them to their needs, even if this means covering new grounds.
In order to produce the maximal amount of meat from the least amount of feed, animal feed suppliers strive to improve uptake of nutrients from the feed in the animal’s stomach. How can we make animal feed more digestible? Many additives had been researched to increase the availability to nutrients in the feed but none of them met the predefined goals. Through abstract thinking the problem was elucidated and analogies with other industries were made. In the past, expander equipment had been used for oil extraction from oilseeds. The function of the expander there is to disrupt the plant tissue to improve the availability of the oils for extraction solvents. For animal feed, we also need to disrupt plant tissue to improve the availability of the nutrients for extraction by the animal stomach fluids. The expander performs a similar function in both industries, a perfect example of a successful technology transfer.
3. The starting point obstructs the outcome
Defining the scope is the most important part of solving a problem; it is the parameter with an immediate consequence on the problem solving process. Problem solving projects are often based on the following quote: “We have to solve this problem by 2015.” Changing health & environmental regulations, dependence of raw material prices and loss of waste streams are frequent triggers for process innovation. In these challenges it often comes down to preventing the occurrence of the problem instead of trying to solve it. Take a step back and try to zoom outof the problem.
The Swiss textile manufacturer Rohner Textil was confronted with Swiss regulatory challenges in 2002. Environmental regulations got stricter and its fabric trimmings had been declared hazardous waste. Cost for handling wastewater and the hazardous trimmings skyrocketed. Facing these issues, the company first thought there was no other way but stopping production in Switzerland and move its production facilities.
However by extending the scope and rebuilding the whole process from scratch without being constrained to the given production mode, the company managed to produce an environmentally friendly, bio-based product. As a result, Rohner claims that its factory wastewater now tests cleaner than the water coming into the plant and the trimmings are now sold to farmers as mulch for ground cover. In this way a problem, the hazardous waste, has been turned into a new market opportunity.
As an outsider it is often more easy to spot these pitfalls. By combining an external view on the industry specific knowledge of our customers, we are able to initiate long-term solutions.