Innovation… or just good old-fashioned problem-solving?
We were recently asked to describe our attitude to innovation. The questions were specific: how do
you encourage people to come up with new ideas; how do you separate good ideas from bad; what
role does research play in developing new products; what role does customer feedback play in the
development process… you get the idea.
You might already have picked up that we consider ourselves to be a highly innovative company.
We submit, as humbly as anyone is able when making such a big statement, that we are the world’s
leading manufacturer of biodiesel production equipment. We say this because the way we do
things has changed biodiesel production from a high cost, expensive-to-run, feedstock-intensive
and cumbersome operation to a community scale modular operation that can be deployed virtually
anywhere and either scaled up or moved to another location with ease. However, answering these
questions proved more difficult than you might imagine.
To be honest, we had simply never thought about the subject before. What we discovered when we
did try to define our innovation process was that… well, we don’t have one. We don’t sit down formally
once a week and say, “Right, let’s innovate”. We simply find solutions to challenges in what seems to
us a very organic way.
A company like ours has many advantages over bigger organisations. Our flat structure enables us
to act nimbly and because we’re small each of us has to trust each of us and, in turn, be trustworthy
ourselves. This empowers our people and fosters creativity. Because we work with customers
all over the world, we have to delegate responsibility to our international representatives, and this
cultivates an environment in which they – usually in response to a location-specific installation
challenge – can present ideas we may not otherwise be exposed to. What we do know is that we love
what we do and we’re frequently intrigued, curious and excited by new prospects.
We’ve deployed plant to such a variety of locations, from rich inner city London to poverty-stricken
Chiapas in Mexico, that we have depth of experience to draw on when we need to solve problems.
We want to sell our products and we’re happy to get to know new markets. We go to site and take
time to understand each location’s unique needs. If a potential customer presents us with something
we haven’t seen before, we automatically draw on our most appropriate resources and work together
to understand and serve it. We seldom question our ability to make our processors work in pretty
much any environment.
For example, process efficiency is most important in biodiesel production as continuous processes
must operate for more than 90% of the available time to maximise profitability. We were never
happy with the traditional methods of using settling tanks or maintenance-intensive centrifuges to
separate glycerine in our processes, and instinctively we all felt there must be a better way. We talked
about this and worried at the problem separately and together, and when we looked again we had
developed what has become our unique glycerine separator technology, GSX.
We developed our unique flash drum technology because we had a potential customer with a very
limited budget. We examined one of the more costly (to buy and operate) parts of our plant, the
traditional distillation towers used for methanol recovery. We also examined the parts of our plant that
couldn’t be sacrificed and in so doing realised that our sophisticated control system could be linked to
our flash drums for this process, so creating our unique flash drum technology.
Turns out that innovation is just something that happens and we’re willing to bet that the same is true
of most companies that find themselves pioneering new and better ways of doing things.