The unsung heroes of innovation

Peter Nieuwenhuizen, Global RD&I Director Specialty Chemicals, AkzoNobel

Successful innovation runs deep. It’s not just about developing new products. OK, that’s the bit most people are interested in. But scratch beneath the surface and you uncover an unsung hero – I’m talking about process innovation. The production or manufacturing processes used to enable innovation to actually become available in large volumes are every bit as important as the actual product itself.

AkzoNobel’s efforts in process innovation are wide-ranging and make a vital contribution. Not only in terms of continuously reducing the cost of production, but also with regard to our sustainability goals, such as reducing waste or helping us switch to bio-based rather than non-renewable raw materials. It will certainly be fundamental to achieving our recently announced ambition to eliminate carbon emissions and use 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Process innovation is often the invisible driving force behind countless improvements that contribute to the bottom line. Production sites don’t become more efficient by themselves. Or suddenly become more cost-effective. Something has to give impetus to those improvements and more often than not it’s down to process innovation.

Allow me to give you a few clear examples of how process innovation is making that all-important – if largely unseen – contribution. Let’s start with something known as the AkzoNobel Leading Performance System, or ALPS for short. This is a multi-year program designed to increase productivity and performance. It has already been implemented at 75% of our manufacturing sites and has been a major contributor to more than €200 million in cost savings.

Our R&D efforts are focused on two fronts. The first is continuous improvement process work, which provides incremental gains to existing technology. The second is process re-design, which is more transformative and delivers step-change improvements. For example, we recently began production of chlorine using new membrane technology at our Frankfurt site in Germany. It will reduce our energy use by more than 25% and save us over €6 million a year, while reducing our environmental footprint.

Other key accomplishments in our Specialty Chemicals business include a new process step to increase capacity of Levasil products, aqueous dispersions of colloidal silica which are experiencing strong demand, particularly for the production of touch screens for phones and tablets. Meanwhile, a process redesign in our Expancel business will reduce emissions of nitrogen to waste water, and eliminate use of nonylphenol ethoxylates in those products.   

In our Decorative Paints business, process redesign is also being applied to develop in-line dispersion rather than batch processing for paint raw materials. This has allowed an increase in production volume, a decrease in costs and a reduction in waste.

We also work closely with suppliers and customers. We recently started a cooperation with ICL in Spain to convert a salt-based waste stream from potassium chloride mining into high quality products using smart process management. In Brazil, we handle all chemicals for Suzano’s pulp mill in Imperatriz, where process innovation has improved the conversion of chlorate and further integrated chlorine dioxide supply with the customer.

There are many more examples around the world. In Arnhem, the Netherlands, carboxy methyl cellulose production, used to improve minerals mining, was improved by optimizing control loops, resulting in an energy reduction of more than 5%, which represents over €100,000 a year. And in Taixing, China, an improvement involving dense loading of a hydrogenation column has resulted in a capacity increase of our monochloroacetic acid plant.

Process innovation is also critical to three key areas of our sustainability agenda – finding ways to use less energy and generate a higher share of renewable energy; closing production loops and finding ways to produce chemicals from waste; and finding bio-based renewable sources of raw materials.

One great example is our use of biosteam from a newly converted facility at Delfzijl, the Netherlands, which now delivers twice as much sustainable energy from the same amount of biomass – in this case reclaimed wood. An additional 10% of AkzoNobel’s energy consumption in the Netherlands now comes from renewable sources, resulting in a reduction of 100,000 tons of CO2 per year. Overall, AkzoNobel’s use of renewable energy reached 40% last year.

Our efforts in the area of both sustainability and innovation also extend to the work we are doing with various partners, which will ultimately have a direct impact on helping to evolve, adapt and improve processes that are in place throughout the company. During 2016, we made progress with existing partnerships and announced additional collaborations involving a number of our key raw materials.

For example, we are part of a consortium – together with partners Enerkem, AVR, The Port of Rotterdam, Air Liquide and Renewi (formerly Van Gansewinkel)and others – exploring the feasibility of setting up waste-to-chemistry facilities in Europe. This promises to be a major step towards the circular economy and would close the loop by converting waste back into useful products.

Product innovation never stops – and neither does process innovation. Chances are you make innovations to your own processes nearly every day. You just don’t realize it. So while it’s unlikely to ever grab the spotlight, spare a thought for process innovation, because it will always be there.