Parenthood really commences after a baby has been born. The parents must get to know their child, get to grips with its peculiarities and develop it into a well-adjusted human being that contributes to society. Same with chemical processes. Like some babies, they originate in test tubes and go through a laboratory phase but after the plant has been commissioned, its performance needs to be investigated, areas that are insufficiently understood must be studied, potential improvements must be evaluated and when considered to be worthwhile, they must be introduced.
The chemical industry is quite good at making its processes grow up. It employs ‘chief chemists’, who are responsible for product quality and process investigation and development. Whereas the plant manager is responsible for the budget and the safety of people and investment in his plant, the chief chemist is responsible for the product quality and can therefore downgrade material he considers to be outside specification. He also defines process conditions and is the first contact for complaining customers. He is also the person who instructs the contractors that provide the chemical industry with its hardware.
Because downgrading is expensive and aqueous effluent requires treatment, any development effort that reduces these and similar cost factors soon becomes highly profitable. When findings in one plant can be used in other similar plants or sold to licensees, they become even more profitable. It is therefore at first sight quite surprising that traditional industries, like the edible oils and fat sector, operate quite differently.
These industries hardly ever have a chemist in charge but prefer an MBA who may look at logistics or manpower but has little idea about the chemistry involved. Moreover, these MBAs have an innate dislike of R&D because it costs money, the results are wait-and see and the financial implications of these results are totally unpredictable. Accordingly, they prefer to purchase their processing plants from specialized engineering companies that guarantee the performance of these plants. That way, the MBA in charge will not be confronted with unexpected problems.
Instead, he will be provided with a plant that is well-proven, which means that it has been around for a long time, has shown to be mechanically reliable, but is in fact out of date. Engineering companies never investigate an operating plant like the chief chemist does in the chemical industry. Consequently, they have not been able to improve their insight into the chemistry and physical chemistry of the process or introduce improvements based on systematic process investigations.
We should not blame this MBA for his decision to buy a plant that is out of date since there was nothing else on offer when he bought that plant. On the other hand, we could blame him or his predecessor for not having appointed a chief chemist to investigate his plants and processes and come forward with a less antiquated design. However, not appointing a chief chemist made sense. If the competition does not carry out any process investigation and is therefore unlikely to introduce process improvements and even patent them so that they have a permanent advantage, there is no point in wasting money on this chief chemist yourself. Concentration within the sector – a physical chemists calls this ‘Ostwald ripening’: large crystals grow at the expense of small ones – has acerbated this situation.
This steady decline in process investigation in the edible oils and fats sector is illustrated by many phenomena that at first sight are hardly related:
- Many standard analytical methods used in the edible oil and fats sector are based on titration and water contents of seeds and meal are determined by weight loss.
- University chairs dedicated to edible oils are not continued when the incumbent retires;
- Consequently, Short Courses teaching recent developments meet a strong demand;
- Fewer and fewer papers in scientific journals that are dedicated to edible oils and fats originate from authors with first-hand experience within the refining industry;
- Some papers originate from suppliers to the industry but they tend to be commercially biased;
- Several companies (Unilever, Proctor & Gamble) even closed their R&D laboratories where edible oil refining was studied;
- Fewer processing patens are applied for;
- Scientific awards are no longer won by people working in the edible oil refining industry but almost exclusively to people working in universities and research institutes.
Is this situation, whereby processes are regarded as immutable and potential savings are not realized particular to the edible oils and fats sector? I am afraid that other sectors also waste money by not realizing the savings that could result from systematic process investigation and development. Equipment manufacturers supplying a single industry sector like the edible oil and fats, the sugar industry or the starch industry or any other ‘established’ industry are indicative of the stagnation of process development within these industries themselves.
Is there a way forward? Can the potential savings be realized? Which actor could do this? From the above it is clear that the established industries haven’t got the right mentality to do so. Decline in systematic process investigation is been going on so long the people in charge have never witnessed that process investigation can be very profitable and save a lot of money. Perhaps, potential suppliers, who propose something out of the ordinary like using expensive enzymes instead of cheaper inorganic acids or bases, can encourage the introduction of process innovations by taking advantage of the prevalent chemophobia and presenting arguments the aforementioned, chemically ignorant MBAs judge to be valuable.
There is also the theoretical possibility that one of the remaining established operators ‘sees the light’ and ‘discovers’ that process investigation can be quite profitable and breaks ranks. It would be ideal but, given the trade mentality of those in charge, quite unlikely. So, whereas existing processes present many opportunities to save money, the parents in charge are not aware or not interested. Parenthood is an ongoing responsibility but you have to remind yourself of its existence.