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The Tipping Point Between “What” and “How”

Posted on November 6th, 2015 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


Ken Klapproth discusses some of the challenges and considerations that companies must consider when attempting breakthroughs:

Have you ever stopped to consider the cost of innovation and what it would take for a company to decide not to implement their latest breakthrough? Where would millions of device-addicted consumers be today if Apple decided not to commercialize the iPhone? How would we have kept our coffee hot, our ground beef fresh or our houses warm if Dow Chemical decided to shelve expanded polystyrene? While there can be many reasons why an innovative idea is ultimately found to be unfeasible, many times it comes down to the balance between answering the fundamental engineering questions of “what” and “how”. Simply put, for every innovation, there is weighing of the cost and opportunity of the innovative product or service – the what – with the cost and capability to produce that innovation – the how.

While reading an article on recent advances in polymer coatings entitled, “Sugarcoating, no — polymer coatings, yes!,” this notion of balancing the “what” and the “how” once again came to mind. The article describes how Malancha Gupta and a team of researchers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering have pioneered a method of vaporizing polymers for coating deposition, as opposed to the typical process of liquid spraying or baths. This new process has some dramatic advantages, such as lessening environmental impact with far less waste and expanding the types of surfaces that can be coated such as wires and fabrics. It is also a perfect example of how advancements in materials or processes can represent a dramatic impact – good and bad – on manufacturing production lines.

Despite the stated benefits of this new process, it does represent a marked difference in the application process that must be considered. The vaporization process will most certainly require a controlled environment or temperature, pressure and atmosphere that differ from the traditional spray or dip molding, coating, or even fluid bed powder coating techniques. Manufacturing excellence is not just about understanding the process, but learning it out over time. Knowing all the variables that contribute to the process, their tolerances and their interdependencies is the key to repeatability. How slight differences in coating formulation, ambient conditions, speeds and feeds can change the intended outcome, and how to correct these conditions for maximum throughput, quality, and profitability. When the cost of “how” is offset by the opportunity of “what”, the decision to commercialize the innovation is easy.

Tell me about your experience – have you ever evaluated a product or process innovation that didn’t pan out? Was the cost of manufacturing too great or was the application too different from your company’s core competency that you decided to give it a pass? Share your thoughts in the comments section below and don’t forget to follow us on your favorite social media channel.

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