Cycle Time Reduction - Necessity the Mother of Invention
, United States
At a time in my life when I was young, I wasn't very interested in putting in a lot of overtime hours and with the process as it had been, it was unavoidable. So one could say that my "invention at work" allowed me to maintain my free time and to "play".
The most interesting aspect of innovation to me is the mentoring/facilitation of people to unlock their creativity. The whole concept of cross-functional teams or cross-market teams in idea generation and the facilitation of that is exciting. Seeing someone in a wholly unrelated field apply some tool or idea from what they know to a new process, etc. is quite satisfying. Getting people to be comfortable with living outside the box all of the time is fulfilling. Anyone who I have ever coached, mentored or managed has heard me say "What is the worst thing that they can do to you? Fire you? That isn't so bad. It's not like anyone will cut off an arm or your legs for making a mistake. At least you gave it your best shot".
The other exciting part is what you can leverage to other things. I started in architectural coatings, worked for 2 raw material suppliers and then a small R&D firm where I honed my skills with military and industrial coatings. Every stop along the way taught me something that I was able to use later on. Not necessarily in a linear way or for its intended application. As Loren Hill would say, it is important to understand the structure/property relationships to understand applications.
Many years ago, I was running emulsion polymerization reactions, which took the better part of 8 hours using 5 liter reactors. The initial monomer charge, feed rate and residual monomer finish took a total of 7 hours. Although I would set up equipment and weigh out materials the day before, I had 2 problems. The first was that the initial water and surfactant charge had to be brought up from room temperature to 65C. Using a water bath and coils, took almost an hour, but I found that I could heat up the water/surfactant on a hot plate in a flask in as little as 5 minutes and charge to the reactor.
Similarly, the finished polymer was supposed to be cooled before filtering. Again, due to time constraints, I tried filtering while the latex was relatively warm. I was able to do this fairly easily - I draped a wet wipe over the filter screen to produce humidity to reduce skinning/drying. In both cases, the changes I made did nothing to the properties nor yield of the latex, but did reduce the lab process time by 2 hours. This allowed me to run the properties (particle size, viscosity, etc), clean up and set up for the next day in an 8-hour shift, without logging overtime, or losing days totally. Before my discovery I would usually only be able to run 2 reactions every other day with clean- and set-up in the off days.
The lab manager one day observed what I was doing and asked why I did it. Once we reviewed the properties and ran some additional tests to confirm that the process changes didn't hurt anything, we looked at how this could be implemented in the plant. On the plant-scale (2000-5000 gallons latex), the whole process was almost 14 hours long. The initial water charge took much longer to heat up than in the lab. Ultimately, a several hundred gallon pre-heat tank was installed, where the initial charge could be heated up and pumped to the reactor when ready so that the process could then start without delay. Similarly, using closed filtration systems, the end product was filtered while still quite warm. The resultant changes cut the process time from 14 to 7.75 hours in the plant. Some other minor changes got it down to 7.5 hours.
I have since seen this type of process done elsewhere and have seen it published as part of a process description, so I am not sharing anything that isn't already publicly known. It was a case where necessity was the mother of invention.
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