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The Road to Commercialization: Best Practices

By Dorothy Lozowski |

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Experts share their best practices in process commercialization

Every day, scientists and engineers in the chemical process industries (CPI) work on innovative ideas, seeking the ones that can be turned into successful commercial products and processes. Many factors help determine which innovations progress beyond research and development (R&D) into production, and relatively few make it that far. The technologies that were awarded the 2017 winning and honoree Kirkpatrick Awards (pp. 22–28) are outstanding examples of processes that have been successfully commercialized. We have asked the experts behind these success stories to share their best practices for process commercialization with our readers. A compilation of their responses follows.

 

The early stages

In the initial stages of laboratory and pilot plant development, several areas were identified as being key considerations: 1) technical feasibility; 2) economics; and 3) a well-defined understanding of the end users’ needs (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  The groundwork for technical feasibility, economics and goal definition is laid in the early stages of development

Figure 1. The groundwork for technical feasibility, economics and goal definition is laid in the early stages of development

Technical feasibility. Margarete Leclerc, director of catalysis R&D for Chemetry Corp. (Moss Landing, Calif.; www.chemetrycorp.com) explains that key reaction variables, such as selectivity and yield, are studied on the laboratory scale, often using high-throughput techniques. Relevant kinetic rates are then studied on a more traditional laboratory scale. She highlights the importance of analysis, “Throughout the laboratory experiments, it is important to develop suitable analytical methods to help close material balances. Frequently, we use redundant techniques, such as gas chromatography and total organic carbon to make sure that the results are consistent across multiple analytical platforms.”

Identification of raw materials is also done at an early stage. Bernhard Kainz, global technology leader packaging coatings at The Dow Chemical Company (Midland, Mich.; www.dow.com) says, “Once we identify suitable raw materials we obviously need to assess their availability — for example, whether they have already been commercialized or if they are still experimental, and how the availability may differ across regions.” He also points out the need to develop techniques to test a product early on, “Lab experiments will then give a first indication of suitability, but beyond that you need to ensure you have the appropriate testing capabilities to evaluate whether developmental lab prototypes will meet performance expectations.”

It is also in the early stages of development when an assessment should be made of how much a fit the overall project is for a company. Joaquim Portela, senior vice president for technology, refining and gasification at CB&I (The Woodlands, Texas; www.cbi.com) says that early on, questions such as the following are explored: “Do we have the capability in terms of resources and skill sets to complete the development? Does the product have a good fit within our overall licensing portfolio?” He also says that the potential for partnering with another company, where it makes good business sense, is considered.

Economics. Technical feasibility and economics go hand-in-hand and both are evaluated early in R&D. Hisashi (Sho) Kobayashi, senior corporate Fellow at Praxair Inc. (Danbury, Conn.; www.praxair.com), explains that “An engineering analysis and a preliminary economic analysis are conducted to check the techno-economic feasibility of an idea proposed before laboratory or pilot-scale work. Since the process economics depend on the technical performance (efficiency, yields, etc.) of the idea proposed, laboratory work is conducted to address important technical issues influencing the technical and economic feasibility.”

And Kyle Self, vice president of process technology at Chemetry offers this approach to early-stage economic evaluations, “The ability to vet the economics of early stage ideas from a technical perspective is critical. Initial economic assessments should focus on opex [operating expense] advantages against competing technologies, based on a set of underlying assumptions… capex [capital expense] estimates are re-examined as the initial technical targets are achieved and the process flow diagram becomes clearer. The remainder of the development process is spent reducing technical risk, which is defined in terms of uncertainty in either the opex or capex calculations.”

Well-defined goals. Understanding the market needs for the product or process under development, and what the requirements for the final product or process are, is a key component that should be realized early in R&D. Dow’s Kainz says “For Dow Coating Materials, we not only need to have a thorough understanding of the critical requirements of the final product — i.e. it’s application and final formulation — but how these requirements could translate into the properties offered by specific raw materials.”

CB&I’s Portela explains that a process they develop must create “compelling value” for a customer. He goes on to say that value can be defined in a number of ways. Speaking in terms of a petroleum refining customer, he elaborates, “Value can be improved profitability for the refiner relative to other process options. Value can also be looked at in terms of a refiner’s ability to manufacture on-spec fuel products, which may not be possible otherwise, or to operate a unit that is inherently safer, has a smaller environmental footprint, or meets a new regulatory requirement.”

Ameen Razavi, director of innovation research at Microvi Biotech Inc. (Union City, Calif.; www.microvi.com) offers the following advice, “Begin with the end in mind! Without a clear, quantifiable understanding of the eventual application, misdirection in the development or commercialization process becomes more likely.”

 

Decision points

Almost all of the experts use stage-gating procedures within their companies to make decisions along the developmental path. These well-defined decision points typically involve technical, economic and market checks. Potential regulatory issues, where applicable, were also cited as part of the check. In some cases, direct customer feedback is sought.

Microvi’s Razavi agrees that re-evaluations are necessary, but he takes a different approach, which uses milestones for evaluations rather than a fixed stage-gating procedure. He defines a factor called “level of confidence,” which “is one of the considerations we use in holistically analyzing whether a project should continue or not.”

 

Scaleup

During the scaleup phase of development, numerous challenges to the development may be confronted and need to be resolved. Often, these challenges are encountered in the pilot-plant (Figure 2). Additional laboratory testing may be required to resolve issues, such as those caused by raw material variations. Understanding basic chemical engineering principles is vital, as Chemetry’s Self points out: “Chemical engineers understand that scaleup challenges typically result from issues related to the interplay between heat transfer, mass transfer and reactor kinetics. Successful scaleup typically depends on the extent those effects are understood and minimized before transitioning to the next scale.”

Figure 2.  Hurdles in process development are often addressed on the pilot-plant and demonstration scales

Figure 2. Hurdles in process development are often addressed on the pilot-plant and demonstration scales

A number of our interviewees described a traditional scaleup procedure, moving from small scale through a bench or pilot stage to a commercial development scale. Randy Seeker, chief technology officer at Chemetry advises to “include at least a year of pilot plant work in the plan — rushing to demo/commercial scale before completing pilot testing will result in expensive modifications at the demo scale.”

Pilot plant testing can be expensive, and as Praxair’s Kobayashi highlights, “The cost of pilot-scale work increases sharply with the scale of the pilot system and the decision on what scale to choose is important. We conduct pilot scale tests at the smallest scale possible to represent the commercial-scale process and generate process data.” He further points out the value of computational fluid dynamic (CFD) models using the data from the pilot tests.

Chemetry’s Self affirms the usefulness of CFD models, “When executed properly, CFD modeling is an investment in development that can pay off in multiples at the demonstration scale and beyond.” Self also stresses that more specialized unit operations, such as electrochemical cells, require particularly careful attention during scaleup.

Startup

Not unlike the pilot-plant phase, it is common to encounter hurdles during startup. One of the key factors to successful startups cited by the experts is thorough and early planning. And the planning needs to encompass all aspects of the process — for example, written and reviewed standard operating procedures, operator training, analytical support, early contracting for raw material supplies, storage and logistics, worked-out production schedules, safety reviews and more.

Good communication is a vital part of this startup planning, and throughout process development. There are many disciplines involved with commercializing a process, including laboratory scientists, pilot-plant engineers, manufacturing engineers, analytical scientists, safety specialists, procurement professionals, contractors, regulatory and applications experts. Input from all relevant disciplines needs to be shared and considered. Our experts have cited the use of internal documents, team meetings and coordination by a project leader as key methods for keeping communication flowing. Special consideration has to be given to language when barriers exist, such as can occur in international developments.

The road to process commercialization, particularly those involving new, breakthrough technologies, can be long and difficult with unexpected turns along the way. Technical and economic factors need to be considered at the outset, and good project management is needed for execution. CB&I’s Portela advises: “Breakthrough developments, by nature, take longer to commercialize and may be more costly when compared to incremental process improvements, hence we must be patient for the development process to play out. These are the developments that overcome difficult chemical engineering problems and require innovative solutions, persistence and teamwork.” ■ 

 

Acknowledgements

Thank you to the teams representing the six 2017 Kirkpatrick Award winner and honorees for their input about process commercialization, which is summarized in this article.

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