Chemical producers in the GCC should foster a culture of innovation throughout their organization, says Moayyed Al Qurtas, if they are achieve the high performance they seek
John Baker London
Innovation is a multifaceted activity and should not be thought of as restricted solely to research and development, maintains Dr Moayyed Al Qurtas, chairman of the GPCA’s Research and Innovation Committee. His aim, and that of the GPCA, is to encourage the recognition that innovation should be pervasive throughout a company’s activities.
Petrochemical producers in the GCC region, he elaborates, need to be innovative in how they run their operations and perform plant maintenance, as well as in process and product development, quality assurance and environmental performance.
“Innovation is a culture that must be spread through all of the organization. It needs to be in all departments. Only then can producers be sure they get the economics they want and the returns on investment they require.”
Al Qurtas, who opened the GPCA’s third Research and Innovation (R&I) Summit in Dubai at the end of February, says innovation must pervade all aspects of a company’s technical operations and procedures. “Process development, for example, is very important and can deliver quick and significant returns on investment. Even if plants and processes are mature, they are complex in nature and there are always ways to improve their operation.”
Product development is also an important issue for GCC producers as they look to move further downstream and add value to their products for customers. “The scope is limited for commodity chemicals”, says All Qurtas, “but when you begin to go into performance products and specialties, such as plastics, the opportunities to benefit from further development cannot be ignored.”
Producers have to talk to and work with their customers to learn their needs and be able to develop products that solve their problems. Customers, says Al Qurtas, are a valuable source of innovative ideas and provide the much needed technology pull to complement the technology push developed by the industry. “Many new ideas emerge from pressure from customers for better performance and better products.”
Meeting these needs, “really requires sophisticated technological capabilities. Innovation in chemical process and product development can go part of the way, but innovative plant operation and maintenance are also required to develop a range of solutions that bring higher quality and improved capabilities and hence enhanced financial performance.”
The development of new processes and products requires special resources and longer timelines and involve a higher level of risk, says Al Qurtas. And this has to be taken into account.
Fortunately, the academic and scientific capabilities in the GCC region are being developed rapidly now, as governments recognize the need for industry to embrace innovation. GCC petrochemical producers too are gearing up and investing the technical centers both in the GCC and overseas, close to their markets and customers.
“Academic and scientific infrastructure is expanding and there are already good links being developed between industry and the national research centers and academia”, he points out. But, he adds “we need to involve academics and national researchers more and create more links with industry. Not enough is being done and we need to be closer to enhance the chances of success.”
The GPCA’s R&I Summit and its Annual Forum, he explains, provide two platforms where academia and industry can come together and discuss common issues. There are also other platforms already established and a variety of initiatives are active and ongoing, in such areas as plastics, fertilizers and logistics as well as promotion of safety and environmental improvement.
Government promotion of the drive for innovation and investment in appropriate resources have a key role in the GCC region, believes Al Qurtas. By steering and encouraging innovation and providing infrastructure they can enhance technology capabilities support of private companies and joint ventures in a variety of fields, such as advanced technologies and manufacturing.
“The technologies associated with such investments are extremely important to answer the needs of society and enhance the capability of further applications. Proper planning and organization can support market and technical development.”
Al Qurtas believes the development of key skills and a culture of innovation will enable and enhance innovation, bringing many contributions to the industry. The region has achieved substantial advances in recent decades and today there are many science and business graduates who are able to play a key role in enhancing and pushing innovation.
It has also expanded capacity in a substantial way through collaboration with partners and entities overseas. “But that does not mean we are fully satisfied with our level of ambition. Like every educational institute in the world, we are trying our best to increase the quality of our graduate output.”
He also sees a role for high flyers to be encouraged to go abroad for post-graduate research. “It’s a global village and we can’t close the doors; we have to be open to ideas. It’s important for their development and they will come back and do a marvellous job in the GCC.”
Leading produces such as SABIC, Tasnee, Borouge, EQUATE and PIC have all invested in technical centers in recent years, largely in the GCC region, but also overseas in some instances, to be able to be close to the customer in main export markets. SABIC, for instance, has facilities now in India and China, and Borouge is active with technical support in China also. These focus mainly on core areas of polymer applications and plastics processing.
The GCC petrochemical industry has come a long way in a short time, says Al Qurtas, building an industry on advantaged feedstocks and partnerships with Western technology providers. It continues to invest in new project, he points out, and each more sophisticated than the previous one, and usually of larger scale.
Companies in the region are now developing their own technologies and he is confident this process will continue and even accelerate. “We are seeing the spread of R&D centers and technical facilities all over the region and seeing more and more new projects coming to the region, such as the Sadara Chemical complex – the world’s largest built in a single stage.”
All of this, he notes, depends on innovation to push the boundaries. “We should never be satisfied; we should always be driving for better technology, better products and better economics.”
Dr Moayyed Al Qurtas is chairman of the GPCA Research & Innovation Committee. He was formerly vice chairman and CEO of National Industrialization Company (TASNEE) and before that was director general of R&D of SABIC, where he directed the establishment of SABIC’s R&D complex and SABIC’s other R&D, licensing and technological development activities. He is a chemical engineer, a member of the American Institute for Chemical Engineers, and a holder of a PhD in management.
“Innovation is a culture that must be spread through all of the organization”
Dr Moayyed Al Qurtas
Chairman, GPCA Research & Innovation Committee