Innovative Thinking, Sustainability & Tequila

innovation and tequila
Blue Agave Plantation. Photo credit: MaloMalverde via / CC BY-SA

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to travel and do a lot of business in Mexico. I have learned a great deal not only about our field, but also about various tequila. Customers often have different favorites, and there’s always time to discuss the benefits of this alcoholic beverage made from blue agave plants.

Nevertheless, you’re not reading this blog to find out my favorite type of tequila (although I’m happy to discuss this if you want to drop me a line). So, you’re likely wondering how I’m going to link the drink to innovation and sustainability (as the title suggested).

First, some background: the growth cycle of the agave plant used by Jose Cuervo Tequila is a minimum of seven years. Once harvested, the heart of the plant is roasted before the grinding and extracting of its juices for distillation. Jose Cuervo uses a portion of the remaining agave fibers as compost for its farms, and local artisans make crafts and agave paper from the remnants.

In an example of innovation, aiming at sustainability, Ford and Jose Cuervo have just announced a partnership to explore the use of agave fibers for bioplastics that can be used for certain car parts.

A typical Ford Motor vehicle has over 400 pounds of plastic parts. In 2000, the automaker began researching the use of sustainable materials in its vehicles. Today, the automaker uses eight sustainable-based materials in its vehicles including soy foam, castor oil, wheat straw, kenaf fiber, cellulose, wood, coconut fiber and rice hulls.

Using the agave fibers in plastic would help to reduce the waste for Jose Cuervo as well as produce lighter-weight bioplastics to improve the efficiency of vehicles.

Agave fibers have unique mechanical properties as well as durability and aesthetic qualities which make them promising candidates. Researchers are testing the material’s durability and heat resistance for potential use in the vehicle’s interior and exterior components such as wiring harnesses, HVAC units and storage bins.

This partnership may have been first fueled by sharing some tequila, but it’s a great example of innovative thinking and interesting approaches to sustainability. We engineers do this every day in our jobs. Let me know other ideas and examples to share!

2017 & Looking into the Future

Process Engineer Charlotte
Photo credit: alex mertzanis via / CC BY-NC

Welcome to 2017.

I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable holiday season. Speaking of safety, several of my blogs in 2016 discussed safety in chemical plants, refineries and personally. Let’s all keep safety at the forefront for 2017 too!

In 2016, I also spent a great deal of time discussing my views of innovation from different vantage points including strawberries and surfing. Of course, none of these are in my realm of activities, but it just goes to show how innovation occurs, sometimes in areas not commonly thought about.

Finally, I wrote about my time at Washington University in St. Louis, Albany State in New York and John Belushi and the Blues Brothers. There are several other personal stories which hopefully you found interesting as well as my views on ethics and chemical engineering.

After all, my blog has now been up and running for over two years! While I’ve enjoyed writing these posts, it’s also been great to hear from my friends, colleagues, customers and others from all over the world.

Looking forward

2017 may be a turbulent year…but I have some suggestions.

Take Small Steps: When I wrote my book, the project manager at Elsevier told me that the Table of Contents was the most important part. By breaking the book into pieces — each chapter, section, paragraph — I only needed to write 1 – 2 pages. Then, before I knew it (well, maybe over one year later), I had completed 150 pages. I’ve tried to apply this perspective in other areas too — Take small steps and accomplish each step to reach your goal.

• Focus on the Benefits: Whether the task is at work (new process, new initiative or better time management), in the gym (longer run, more repetitions or a longer headstand), or with your family (this you can decide yourself), make sure that the small steps you take result in advantages and benefits to you or someone else.

• Develop “No Choice” Categories: What do I mean by this? There will be steps that you take which must happen for you to achieve the desired benefits. These steps are your “no choice” categories. But by looking at these as small steps as essential parts of reaching the long-term goal, you can better motivate to do what needs to be done.

I’ve already started thinking with excitement about 2017’s blog posts. Look forward to my thoughts on Ford Motor & Tequila, Famous Nathan’s Hot Dogs and another wide variety of topics. I also invite you to make suggestions! In fact, I’d welcome guest blogger contributions. Please let me know what interests you. I’d be happy to discuss it further.


The Roots of Innovation

Photo credit: Kay Kim(김기웅) via / CC BY

Lately, I’ve been paying attention in this blog to examples of innovation that may not be the first on the process engineers’ radar — such as from surfer Kelly Slater or Ford’s use of tequila plant fibers in partnership with Jose Cuervo. I also recommended a book examining innovation driven by “misfits.”

Yet I’ve realized I haven’t yet encouraged a revisiting of the theoretical underpinnings of innovation, or a consideration of the barriers to this type of thinking. While theory can be dry, in the case of innovation it can make for interesting reading or “checklists” to what organizations should and should not be doing.

A good example comes from a McKinsey discussion of “strategic and organizational factors” that separate successful innovators from the rest of the field. Authors de Jong, Marston and Roth argue that while there is “no proven formula for success, particularly when it comes to innovation,” there are several attributes that can enable innovation.

innovation eight step

John F. Kennedy led the space race with choose and aspire. Today, we can discover hidden needs and evolve through innovation by listening to our customers or business personnel in normal day-to-day activities.

Barriers to Innovation

Of course, on the other side, there are barriers to innovation or to thinking conventionally for unconventional ideas. These would be strategic, organizational, and cultural.

So, then, how do innovators move forward and find success. I see it as a three-step process:

  1. Determine where to focus…Listen to the market
  2. Decide what to prioritize…Ask the market and your team
  3. Delineate implementation plans…Define the projects and roadmap

The effort that goes into an innovation can be startling at times — much like the years it has taken me to perfect head stands and side crow though I practice yoga two times per week. For example, consider the work of Pratt & Whitney. They spent more than $10 billion developing a new aircraft engine. The 30 years it took is 15 times longer that the gestation period for an elephant. Yet, they continued.

The resulting engine burns 16% less fuel and makes 75% less noise. Reading the Bloomberg article, I noticed the same process over and over again: concept, sharing of information, lab study, scale-up and finally commercialization.

Now the firm has 70 buyers in 30 countries for its “deceptively simple yet fiendishly different” idea.

Inventive Minds

We can’t ever know where that next innovative idea is coming from. Do you know of Lowell Wood? Yet he’s “America’s most prolific inventor.” He has 1085 patents already with another 3000 inventions in the queue at the US Patent and Trademark Office.

He is so busily inventing solutions to the world’s problems, he has surpassed Thomas Alva Edison who famously patented breakthroughs in communications, movies, lighting and power distribution.. Edison earned his last patent — no. 1084 — on 16 May 1933 for a device that bonded two metals via electrolysis.

Edison’s record stood until 7 July 2015 when Wood patented his “Medical Support System” device installing video conferencing and data transmission into medical gear so that a patient can leave a hospital and use the machines at home.

His strategy for innovation? “There’s really nothing to it all. You just read, and you remember what you read.”

You’re off to a good start, of course, reading this blog. Share your examples of innovation with me. I’d love to read them!

Being a Doer and The Blues Brothers.

Loyal followers of this blog already know some of my background and likes. Now, you get to learn that I’m a big fan of John Belushi and The Blues Brothers. I link this to my years spent living in Chicago and my Master’s Degree earned from the School of Engineering at Washington University (Wash U) in St. Louis. How are these related?

Lawyer Cash Nickerson, Wash U alumni, and author of Listening as a Martial Art, recently posted on LinkedIn about “doers, reporters, amplifiers and listening skills” in the workplace. The workplace for us could be technical sales, project engineering, process development, etc.

In the case of Belushi’s Jake in The Blues Brothers, his workplace was “getting the band back together.”

Cash talks about a “reporter” as someone who tells you what is happening: the client is unhappy, the project is delayed, the specifications are wrong, etc. Basically, telling the story of “how we got here.” The “amplifier” reports but also repeats the story, even louder. They are the ones who after hearing of a crisis, scream even louder. With email, text, and social media, it’s easy to become a reporter/amplifier.

Leadership Advice
Photo credit: miuenski via RemodelBlog / CC BY-NC-SA

Meanwhile, a “doer” doesn’t just bring a problem; they also present a solution or a suggested solution. The best actually solve the problem or attempt to do so before even coming to you. The “doer” doesn’t announce the problem widely (amplifying it) but rather sets up a meeting (I call these an “adjustment meeting”), organizes a conference call with the client, writes a change order, etc. The doer tries to resolve the issue and only comes to the boss if the problem remains unresolved.

John Belushi is a doer. In one of my favorite scenes in the movie Jake lies in mud in an underground tunnel with a mysterious woman shooting at him. All Jake can do to solve his problem is try to talk his way out: “Honest… I ran out of gas. I… I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts! IT WASN’T MY FAULT!”

I think that we’ve all been in the mud at one time in our careers. Yet, I would not suggest that this is a good approach in for solving problems in the workplace. What you want to do is stop and think first. Am I going to be a reporter, or worse yet an amplifier? Take the time to first rehearse your approach in your head. See if you can find a way, instead, to be a doer. So much more will get done, and you’re more likely to get ahead too.

We all deal with problems in the mud every day in our jobs, let me know some ideas and examples that we can share for problem-solving strategies. Or if you just want to share a favorite scene from The Blues Brothers, I’ll be happy to hear that too!

Process Engineering Choices


solid liquid filtration
Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via

Have you ever heard of “analysis paralysis?” It’s a state process engineers might know well. Being confronted with so many different approaches and varied equipment available, we can be left stuck wondering what to do next.


The recent BHS newsletter looked at just this indecision from the perspective of a process engineer facing the challenges of acidic slurries and vacuum filtration.  We began by sharing the perspective of Garrett Bergquist, the BHS Process & Application Engineer, who is presenting at the AICHE annual meeting in San Francisco this month.


Garrett’s article discusses belt filter technologies, materials of construction and proper vacuum belt selection.  His focus in particular is on alternate materials available in vacuum belt filter construction. He furthered his insights with a case study addressing chemical compatibility to process 2,200 kg/h dry solids precipitated from a sulfuric acid solution.

Noting stainless and carbon steels are often incompatible with most sulfuric and hydrochloric acid concentrations, he concluded, “when it comes to dealing with hazardous slurries such as those containing sulfuric or hydrochloric acid the options should be carefully considered.”



Also in the latest A&SoF newsletter, we announce our Vacuum Belt Filter skid. This mobile skid (see the wheels?) is 0.3m2, including liquid ring vacuum pump, separator, transfer pump, instrumentation and PLC controls. Plus, its fully-wired for quick electrical hook-up.


Finally, we offered a presentation of BHS’s laboratory filtration testing capabilities. Filtration Laboratory Manager Ron Baltz’s overview of the new Charlotte facility covers all of the bases. But, if you still have questions, let me know.


Surfs Up to Innovation!

Innovation is all around us. We encounter its results regularly in our jobs as engineers. But, thinking about the concept more broadly for this blog, I was struck by an example from a Business Week article on Kelly Slater.

Image source: BusinessWeek

Now, I’m not a surfer. I swim, bike and run (sometimes all together in mini-triathlons) but even I’d heard of Slater, whom the magazine described as “the world’s best and best-known surfer.” So I had to wonder what he was doing in a magazine devoted to business, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Well, it turns out Slater accomplished the ultimate goal of the surfing community. His quest to innovate led him to make the “near perfect man-made wave.” You can see video of him surfing this feat of modern ingenuity on the BusinessWeek site.

What struck me in the article was the familiarity of his process. It started with the concept to make a perfect wave, 7 – 8 feet, with a much coveted “right break” (why this is so special is unclear from the article, and a cursory Internet search for the answer didn’t help me differentiate why the right break is better than any other kind).

From concept, Slater and his team endured a long phase of expensive and speculative engineering involving prototypes and yes, research labs, to get it right.

Then, he finally experienced the excitement of getting it right — and promptly put it on Instagram.

At every step of the way we could relate to the struggle for him and his team. Even down to the elation and social media sharing of the success — I’ve seen many of my customers’  videos of their products “getting it right.” Although, they’re typically wearing more than swimsuits!

With the case of the man-made wave innovation, as usual, you have the supporters and the nay-sayers. The nay-sayers believe that mechanical waves take away from the exotic nature of surfing. Supporters believe this could open up the sport to resorts, competition in the Olympic games, and expand the sport to places in the world where oceans don’t exist.

All in all, this is not so different than developing a new chemical application. Having pursued his goal through creation, evolution, and refining, Slater has now found an investor to fund and grow the technology. It’s exciting to see innovative minds succeed — whether it’s chemicals or “cowabunga dude” success changing the face of surfing.



Informal Entrepreneurs & Innovation Everywhere



I recently read a book called The Misfit Economy. The non-fiction book, by Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips, published by Simon & Schuster, looks at innovation from businesses on the fringes of society.  I encountered this book on the way back from traveling to Dubai and London and was drawn immediately to its theme of innovation.  Although the authors look at “out-of-the-box” innovators in the world’s black market and informal economies, it was a perfect read for me when I was feeling displaced by travel.

Clay and Phillips examine the commonalities among Amish camel milk traders, computer hackers, inner city gangsters and more under appreciated innovators and consider what they each have in common with the disrupters at GE or creative minds in Silicon Valley.  You’d be surprised by what they discover, even though there is no LinkedIn network for the underground economy.

One example from the book follows an elite group of people connected with an underground collective called UX (urban experiment).  The group comprises French men and women who have “above ground” duties of work and family that also work to restore the forgotten artifacts of French civilization.  In one audacious move, they worked for over a year restoring a 19th century clock in the basement of the Pantheon — secretively.  They smuggled tools, internet connections, and food through tunnel excavations — for over a year — all without being detected.  For the book’s authors this example showed how informal networks and information sharing can accomplish innovative goals and objectives.

A “legal” example the authors share comes from innovative Amish camel milk traders who used relationship building across networks to address a Food & Drug Administration (FDA) restriction on the camel’s milk.  Working collaboratively the Amish developed a network of associations to bring camel milk to California’s health-conscious consumers and have now successfully placed pasteurized camel milk on the shelves in 40 Whole Food stores.

What is exhilarating about this book is realizing that there are interesting problem-solvers and innovators in all walks of life. The more you look around, the more you will see “misfit innovation” and “informal entrepreneurs” everywhere.

7 Key Steps in PetChem Safety

industrial disaster
The Union Carbide factory now lies abandoned in Bhopal. Image source.

Attending the PetChem Technology Forum in Houston I learned from engineering, operating company, supplier and consultant industry experts. I was fortunate enough to be presenting on Filtration Technology for Removing Solid Contaminant Fines from Water Scrubbing, Clarifier Effluent and Grey Water. I discussed technologies, applications, case histories and troubleshooting.

Another of the presentations addressed safety and conducting safety audits. We all think we know about safety. Sometimes we’re overconfident — as when I told my 88 year-old father how to safely climb a ladder, and he proceeded not to talk with me for a day (but that’s another story).

In Houston I was learning from Robert J. Weber, the President/CEO and founder of PSRG, a global provider of process safety, risk management, process plant reliability, and comprehensive HSSE services for the hydrocarbon and chemical process industries.

Robert first covered lessons learned from industry incidents such as:

  • a cyclohexane release and explosion that killed 28 in Flixborough, UK
  • a loss of containment in a local Mexico City sewer system that led to over 650 fatalities
  • the “world’s worst industrial disaster” in Bhopal, India when a Union Carbide methyl isocyanate tank ruptured.

    industrial safety
    Industrial accident in 1976 Italy

He then related these to elements of process safety (as seen in this presentation slide):

process safety

Robert discussed what each company can do to improve safety including establishing a culture of safety (leadership and competency). He suggested clearly defined expectations and accountability along with Key Performance Indicators. Finally, he stressed continuous improvement and community outreach.

7 Key Steps

Over the course of the presentation and panel questions seven key steps in safety management were identified:

  1. Assign personnel for accountability
  2. Adopt a personalized company philosophy
  3. Learn about process safety
  4. Incorporate process safety into the business drivers
  5. Set achievable goals
  6. Track performance
  7. Revisit and improve on a continuous basis

This presentation was a great reminder of how essential it is to always be thinking about safety. As Sargent Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues would say:

Safety in Engineering

Importance of Good Professional Sense

Chemical Process Industry engineers don’t encounter ethical situations every day, fortunately. Yet, when we do, the decision-making is heavily weighted by our awareness of the importance of the potential safety, environmental and quality-control hazards associated with what we do.

engineers making tough choicesPhoto credit: CameliaTWU via Decorators Guru / CC BY-NC-ND

Chemical Engineering tackled the topic of Engineering Ethics IQ in a special discussion last year. They also sought the opinions and comments of readers regarding specific hypothetical cases in a survey aiming at discussing ethically charged situations.

The survey:

  • Questioned the ethics of using a miniscule amount of a poisonous additive to a product.
  • Considered whether or not to continue testing with a critical gasket potentially leaking.
  • Addressed proper reporting and handling of waste.
  • Covered insider information and vendor incentives.
  • Examined acknowledging responsibility.

I’ll be interested to see the magazine’s survey results. In the meantime, I was inspired to look back at the NSPE Code of Ethics that notes, “Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare.” The AIChE, too, strives to uphold and advance ethical thinking, reminding its members to use “their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare.”

My thinking on this important topic was jogged on the golf course, as I mentioned previously, when I was thinking of the honesty of Brian Davis on the PGA Tour. Revisiting the coverage of that event for this blog, I came across an insightful New York Times opinion piece pointing out that Davis’s behavior highlighted “the refreshing contrast between golf and other sports.”

The columnist observed, “In other sports, players unabashedly claim to have (take your pick) made the catch, avoided the tag, cleanly blocked the shot, had both feet inbounds, etc., only to be overruled by officials or replay cameras.” Whereas, in 1925 golfer Bobby Jones shrugged off praise of his calling a similar penalty on himself by saying, “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”

This is how we, as chemical process engineers, ought to think as well. That ethical action is not a choice, but the only way to respond. Pressures at work — be they related to time, profitability, or reputation — cannot diminish the fact that ethical decision-making is always good professional sense.

Ethical Engineers are Prepared

On the golf course recently, I was reminded of Brian Davis. Do you remember? In 2010, he called a two-stroke penalty on himself in tournament play. His violation, nudging a reed aside on the 18th, cost him $411,000 as he ultimately finished second to Jim Furyk.

process engineer problem solving
Photo credit: Tord Sollie via / CC BY-NC-ND

Now, I haven’t come close to winning a major tournament — although I did earn “closest to the hole” in a Gas Processors Tournament in Madrid, Spain. Nevertheless, when I hit the links I assiduously keep track of my strokes — all of them — because it’s the right thing to do. Somehow this got me thinking of how doing the right thing in chemical process engineering can, in fact, prove as costly as Davis’s honorable action. Yet choosing the other, less-ethical path could cost human lives from say bacterial contamination or ignored safety procedures.

Karl Stephan, writing in Chemical Engineering, acknowledged sound ethics in our field demands “a large dose of technical know-how” as well as a sound ethical foundation when confronting “ethically charged questions.”

Texas State University’s Stephan may have been a Boy Scout as his suggestion for engineers is to “be prepared” to identify ethical problems with seven steps to better navigate the situation. I paraphrase here:

  1. Know what you believe. Ask yourself in advance what kind of situations you would be willing to risk your reputation or your job for.
  2. Recognize ethical problems. Take stock of your individual role and what could go wrong, go unreported, or cause harm to better understand the scope of your responsibility.
  3. Identify stakeholders. Having identified possible ethical problems, consider everyone who might be affected (whether if something is done or if a problem is ignored).
  4. Analyze interests. Take the time to anticipate each of those stakeholders interest in the various outcomes of an ethical decision.
  5. Examine alternatives. Weigh the possibilities such as doing nothing, doing nothing at least for a time, or acting immediately to determine reasonable courses of action.
  6. Execute decision. With all the thinking you’ve been doing, you should be in a position to implement a decision – even a difficult one.
  7. Document everything. Try and collect a paper trail of the entire process as soon as you are aware of an ethical issue. You will be better able to recall details if called upon if you have the complete, accurate information.

What I appreciate about Stephan’s approach is that he takes the abstraction of ethics and turns it into a process. That’s what I call knowing your audience. Ethics is anathema to engineers in a way. Not because we want to do whatever we want, without caring a whit for the consequences, but because it is not a hard science. Many of us enjoy the one right answer that engineering often represents, whereas ethics is all about ambiguity.

Ultimately, though, there can be no ambiguity in handling ethical situations in chemical process engineering. We must implement clear rules about what is ethical and actively seek to do the right thing — as Davis did. This is the only foundation upon which I will stand for generating revenue and building my and my company’s reputations.