Manage uncertainties in R&D to increase success rates
Research projects are by definition uncertain in their outcomes. Over the years, Avantium has executed many challenging catalyst testing projects and helped customers to stay competitive by accelerating their R&D.
However, while outsourcing projects can fast-track research, if the intended results are not delivered, the visibility of the money spent externally is seen as a downside. As a result, we have seen a preference for outsourcing mainly programs with a high degree of certainty of achieving well-defined outcomes. And yet, Avantium’s innovative approach to R&D has often enabled complex and uncertain projects to be successfully completed.
Clear Stages as a success factor
In planning such projects together with our customers, Avantium applies clear stage gates, each with well-defined milestones, and step-out options in case these are not achieved.
These gates range from feed processability, analytical method development, unit configuration, and lastly, chemical validation (behavior of catalysts and products under design operating conditions, and with the intended analytical methods). At each gate, decisions are taken to proceed, redesign the program or to stop before further expense and resources need to be made available for the next stage. This gives our customers control over budgets, and in the end a higher degree of certainty of achieving intended results, while still executing valuable research in unknown areas.
An example of how we manage stages in our research services projects
One customer wished to execute a research program in which the products could undergo post-reactor reactions leading to failed experiments or blockage of the hardware. The customer was unable to test the process in their own equipment and even doubted whether it could be done in high-throughput equipment. Firstly, we proposed an added stage, to determine the successful operating regime to avoid post-reactor reactions, which we executed in a limited number of reactors.
Next, with the optimal regime determined the analytical method and sampling frequency was determined, maximizing the results before any blockages could occur. All this was done in close consultation with the customer, and we executed the program in a 64-reactor unit. Since the first project, we have repeated the same program for the customer several times. Within each stage, the customer had the option to cancel the project, thereby managing the outcomes and their costs.
Another example – difficult to process heavy vacuum gas oil
In another example, a difficult to process heavy vacuum gas oil feed had to be tested. Contrary to common belief there are more factors influencing feed processability than analytical methods can describe, making it somewhat an art. Even properly characterized by e.g. boiling point curve, aromatic molecule and contaminates content, it is not guaranteed that a particular feed can be successfully processed.
In-house we have a dedicated feed-testing unit duplicating the upstream section of a Flowrence unit that allows us to make a clear ranking of feeds, from easy to not-processible, without having to operate a complete catalyst testing program. With this approach, we can also quickly explore technical solutions or handling procedures to reduce the risk of failure during the real test.
By adding a feed evaluation stage in the customer project, before the catalyst test, the money spent was limited in case the feed was not processible. Furthermore, if the outcome were to be negative, the customer could have stopped the overall program before we attempted the full test.
Enabled by our Flowrence technology like active liquid distribution and individual reactor pressure control we successfully passed the stage gate and executed the program beyond the customer’s expectation. As a positive side effect, the valuable insights from the feed test were also used by the customer internally, improving their operational efficiency on their equipment.
Avantium’s approach of defining well-defined stage-gates for projects with a high degree of uncertainty in their outcomes enables the successful execution of projects otherwise considered impossible or inappropriate to outsource. Come and talk to us about those complex, uncertain catalyst research programs!