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Engineering and innovation.

Let us examine what the driving force is behind innovation. Obviously, Economics is that force. Organizations are driven to develop new products for new and existing markets. Technological innovations result from new technologies and new combinations of existing technologies.

What are the bases for innovation? Ideas nucleate innovations. Although many inventors are not necessarily well trained or experienced scientifically, the basic starting point is scientific and engineering knowledge. A lot of wasted effort is avoided when the innovator examines the basic scientific and engineering literature available to him. Technological development emanates from basic research, analytical and experimental research and from applied research through to pilot systems and on to commercial scale operations. (see Figure 1). A key to successful innovation is to price the economic and technical risks involved at each milestone.

Role of Leadership in innovation

Management must provide the leadership, and set the climate so that the technologies and economics are developed in a disciplined manner. After all, innovative programmes cost money. It is obvious that a company's management has the key roles of approving the funds and setting the goals for each development programme by demonstrating authentic interest and persistence in any technological development which it is sponsoring.

The success of the Japanese, in fields of development of better products and marketable systems over the past 25 years, is well-known. Their success is not just due to team work, but to the long-term commitment of senior management personnel. In North America, although there are many examples of focused successful technological programmes, it is true the track record overall in the past 25 years has not been as great as experienced by the Japanese. A case can be made that one of the reasons for this is that non-technical executives are leading so many of our organizations, but this climate is changing. To keep up and get ahead of the Japanese companies, companies have to be led more by individuals who understand not only finance, market and production factors, but have the interest and knowledge required in the development of new technology.

Management, which has had a track record of successful innovations, appreciate the importance of first encouraging people with ideas and strong analytical skills and second setting an orderly climate of development through the use of a series of milestones for each stage of a development through the R&D, engineering, construction and start-up phases. Engineering projects which do not follow these steps invariably result in major cost overruns and excessive delays. (see Figure 2).

My Focus for the Past 45 Years

I will now present to you a few examples from my own career to demonstrate the interrelationships between leadership and technological skills in creating successful innovations.

Upon graduating from MIT, I was caught up by the innovative possibilities of the new metal, titanium. I worked for Armour Research Foundation (Chicago) on a process for the production of ductile titanium. The sponsor was Kennecott, the largest copper company in the US. After the war, it knew there would be tremendous growth in the markets for titanium dioxide pigments replacing zinc oxide and lead oxide in paints. Kennecott also knew that the pigment companies had been hurt during the war by shortages when German submarines torpedoed their raw materials from India, ie. ilmenite, a compound of iron and titanium oxide. The pigment companies wished to find North American based sources of ilmenite. Kennecott took up this challenge and located a massive ore body of ilmenite on the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence at Allard Lake. However, this ilmenite not only contained iron as ilmenite but iron oxide as hematite, and was too low grade to be used as a raw material by the pigment industries. The New Jersey Zine Co., one of the major producers of zinc oxide, had a research staff of over 300 and were highly motivated to develop a process for upgrading Kennecott's Canadian ore body. By the spring of 1952, Kennecott and New Jersey Zinc had not only formed a company, Quebec Iron & Titanium (QIT), but the Zinc company had developed an electric smelting process first on a pilot scale. It then constructed a five furnace plant at Sorel and operated one of these furnaces for 18 months. The process was based on selective reduction of the iron oxide in the Allard Lake ore using dry coal as the reducing medium. The ore - coal mix was fed into open arc smelting furnaces, the products being liquid iron and liquid slag analyzing 70% TiO.sub.2- The first furnace was started up in 1950, and by the time I joined QIT in April 1952 as Director of R&D, the furnace operation was so out of control that the refractories had eroded. Because of run outs of liquid iron and slag explosions, the furnace had to be shut down. Although the company had these tremendous furnace problems, before I could spend time on them I was asked to help deal with the fact that the first commercial shipments of titania slag to the American pigment companies were only yielding 85% recovery of titania as compared to the expected 95%. I had not had experience in titanium pigment technology, but in a few weeks I had learned enough about the digestion of titania slag with sulphuric acid to suggest that the low yields being experienced by the customers were due to the formation of an insoluble form of titanium dioxide, namely rutile. My training in basic chemistry quickly indicated that the rutile formation was due to the slag being cast and allowed to sit in piles at the end of the casting machine exposed to the air such that part of the slag oxidized to form rutile.

The installation of a simple water spray at the end of the casting machine quenched the slag and stopped the oxidation. Henceforth the titania recoveries of the pigment plants became as originally expected.

You have heard of the expression' necessity is the mother of invention'. This phrase certainly applies to the titania recovery situation. Indeed, necessity being the mother of invention applied to the whole smelter scene at Sorel. They had proceeded to build the plant at Sorel with inadequate pilot plant information. The technical people did not make this situation clear to the decision-makers. There were a multitude of problems - lack of control of ore grade, poor furnace feed control, erosion of furnace roof and bottom refractories, inefficient systems for desulphurizing the liquid iron and handling the TiO.sub.2 slag, to name a few. An intensive process development programme was started shortly afterward with management's full support and financial backing. In 1956 after all these changes were in place that solved these problems and the benefits evident, the plant was expanded by the custom engineering of three more furnace systems, together with allied facilities. This expansion was carried out using the milestone approach described previously. The project was implemented on budget, on time and with very successful start-ups of the systems. In the design of the furnace systems, heat transfer and structural techniques were used such that these furnaces have been physically stable for more that 25 years. The experience gained at QIT demonstrated to me how important multi-disciplinary process engineering is and how essential strong leadership by top management and financial backing are.

Atkins Hatch and Hatch Associates

By 1957, the developments at Sorel were in successful operation and I had a great job. However, it seemed to me that none of the engineering companies, including the American firms, understood or were interested in anything but implementing engineering - construction projects. I believed that there was the need for a comprehensive engineering firm which could contribute to R&D programmes, understand and carry out consulting assignments for clients in marketing and financial fields, as well as have engineering design, project management and startup skills. The aim would be to concentrate on repeat business with clients, similar to the accounting and legal firms, with due respect to the confidentiality and proprietary concerns of the clients. W.S. Atkins, an Englishman who had the largest engineering firm in the UK and three years earlier had opened a Canadian office, offered me the opportunity to apply these principles. On January 3, 1958 I joined W.S. Atkins & Associates Ltd. as president in Toronto. Surprisingly, our first comprehensive engineering project was the tunneling project on University Avenue for the TTC. The check list, milestone approach, which I previously referred to was employed on this project. The project was so successful that over the succeeding years we have done at least four additional major projects for the TTC and similar projects in Melbourne Australia, Los Angeles, Buffalo and Vancouver. In 1965, three of us purchased the firm and proceeded to develop what 1 believe is a one-of-a-kind organization. We searched out and hired individuals with advanced degrees in all engineering disciplines, as well acquiring a few individuals with operating, research, marketing and financial backgrounds. These skills were complemented by acquiring and developing staff with civil, electrical, mechanical, metallurgical and chemical engineering skills, plus project construction management skills. The aim was to assist clients in all the activities in the development and execution of projects through successful commercial operation.


Falconbridge Nickel Mines Ltd. was the first client in which we were able to place into practice our aims and objectives in the metallurgical industry.

Our first assignment with Falconbridge was a marketing and economic study for steel on the west coast from Los Angeles to Vancouver. At that time Falconbridge was developing its iron-copper concentrates project located in the Queen Charlotte Island. I was negotiating with the Japanese for a long-term iron concentrate contract and did not know much about the Japanese steel industry. We quickly developed for them a status report of the Japanese steel industry at the time.

The market study aspects were to see what the possibilities were for Falconbridge eventually developing an iron and steel complex in the Vancouver area.

The BC government had a law which stated, in effect, that the exporter of raw materials had to demonstrate why such materials could not be processed in the province. During our study, we found that Western Canada Steel Ltd. was a small but profitable operation. We suggested to Falconbridge that it should offer to purchase this operation, which could be a base for a steel complex not just based on scrap but on Queen Charlotte's iron concentrates at the conclusion of its Japanese contract. The BC government accepted this premise, and Falconbridge was allowed to proceed with its Japanese contracts for iron concentrates as well as copper concentrates. As a result of this work I became known to the then president of Falconbridge and vice-president of metallurgy. They made me aware of their programme for developing the company's laterite deposits in the Dominican Republic for the production of ferro nickel. We were retained by Falconbridge to assist them on their pilot plant programme in the Dominican Republic.

An integrated pilot plant was constructed. The pilot electric furnace consisted of a single phase, two electrode furnace, equipped with 1750 KVA transformer, voltage range of 200-880 volts. A literature search showed that laterite smelting processes all used electrodes submerged in the slag, ie bath resistance smelting. These furnaces were limited to a power density of 8KW per sq ft of hearth. To smelt the tonnage required by Falconbridge would have needed the installation of 10 such bath resistance furnaces. It became essential to develop a process requiring fewer furnaces. The wide range of voltages provided for the pilot furnace allowed the voltage to be increased such that melting could be accomplished by high-energy arcs smothered by the calcine feed. The pilot programme demonstrated that the power density per sq ft of hearth could be increased from 8 to more than 25KW. As a result three, rather than 10 furnaces, each operating at 36MW would be required to smelt the desired tonnage.

As a result of our deep involvement in the pilot plant, our firm was retained to engineer the commercial installations. All the process systems had to be custom engineered as the systems were all based on new technology. Moreover, the pilot-plant data had to be scaled up from 100 tons per day to 6,000 tons per day of laterite.

In addition to the engineering, Falconbridge had to arrange financing, find partners, commit itself to long-term oil contracts, install a pipe line, arrange to build a refinery for the production of naphtha and heavy fuel oil, the latter to fire a 200 megawatt thermal power station, the power source for the project. The naphtha was to be the source of energy for the reduction furnaces. The president of Falconbridge followed our check list. I will never forget that we had the bids for the 16,000 tons of structural steel and the company still did not have its financing arranged. I told the president that if he just committed to pay for the shop drawings from the successful bidder for the structural steel contract, he would have another 14 weeks to arrange financing before there was a need to release the structural steel contract for fabrication. The company arranged its financing in that period and the project was implemented on time, on budget and was at full design production rates within the first year of operation. This plant was started up in the fall of 1971.


There is no question that over the years the technical tools available have become more and more sophisticated. Sophistication, notwithstanding, nothing replaces doing the technical and economic homework in a disciplined manner.

In summary, I should like to leave you with the following thoughts:

1) successful innovations depend directly on the sponsoring organization's management creating a positive climate for innovation;

2) have a well-defined series of milestones;

3) a team approach where the necessary inter-disciplinary skills are employed;

4) focus on costs including pricing of technical risks;

5) an overall persistence for solving the many problems and finally, but most important of all, financial backing of the company.

Now, you graduating engineers, your first priority is obtaining a job. As an employer, I believe the engineering graduates of the 1980s are the best group of engineers since those graduates immediately after World War II. I say that not because the graduates of the 1980s are better trained, but because I believe the economic climate of the early 1980s made these people become mentally tougher and more interested in all aspects of engineering than the 1950 - 1980 graduates. I would suggest that you do everything possible to obtain experience in your chosen field. Use your technical skills when you are first out of university. If you don't use your training, It will soon be forgotten. Your leadership skills can be developed later. Leadership skills are far more meaningful when combined with technical experience. You should keep yourself alert to and observant of the skills of other engineering disciplines.

When you are being interviewed inquire about the company's technological strengths. Is it technologically and market driven? You should read not just technical articles but also such magazines as The Economist. Our senior staff and many of our other engineers subscribe to this journal. It is expensive but is a small price to pay to be knowledgeable on world politics, economics, business and finance.

We have good engineering schools in Canada. Canadian universities are entering into more joint projects with industry as well as government. I believe that the 1990s will see more engineering graduates becoming leaders of industry. These individuals will understand the inputs of multi-disciplinary technology, finance and marketing. They will have the interpersonal skills and determination to make things happen positively for their respective companies.

The 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s saw the increasing dominance of MBAS, CAs and lawyers. The 1990s will see less emphasis on these professions and more on science and engineering. It is happening and will have to happen if we are to be economically successful.
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Title Annotation:interrelationship between leadership and technological skills in creating successful innovations
Author:Hatch, G.G.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Jun 1, 1991
Previous Article:75 years of industrial chemistry and chemical engineering at the NRC.
Next Article:75 years of chemistry at the NRC: one discipline marching to three drummers.

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