Dow takes three-pronged approach to better R&D

by James Montgomery, News Editor, Solid-State Technology

Three key approaches have helped Dow Chemical launch nearly 20 products over the last decade, rethink how effective R&D is done, and generate significant improvements in cycle times. These factors include a molecular architecture approach, a focus on “speed-based development,” and adoption of high-throughput technology, noted Kurt Swogger, VP of PP&C business development, in his Wednesday presentation at the ConFab in Las Vegas, NV.

Back in the mid-90s, Dow’s vision for success was not to do interesting science, Swogger explained, but rather to convert interesting science into good science — and, of course, make more money. Faced with a projected next cyclical bottom in 1999-2000, and normal product launch times approaching a decade or more, Dow wanted to shift its focus to higher-volume, higher-value specialty products (with the goal of making these products 20% of the company’s 1991 volume).

To achieve this involved adopting several approaches. Swogger discussed the hierarchy of Dow’s Insite technology platform, a molecular architecture approach supported by “wisdom, luck, or outside Dow sources.” A key advance was the ability to model molecular kinetics, which could help define final properties as well as provide solid data for scaling up processes from the lab to large reactors. This multipronged Insite approach was used to launch 10 products from 1993-2001, and another eight products over the past five years, a range of materials and chemicals including plastomers/elastomers, adhesives, polymers, and fibers. For polyolefins property relationships are structured by building molecular models from many (500-600) subroutines. The goal depends on the properties needed. This is being expanded to epoxies, urethanes, and water-based products (cellulosics).

Another key to the Insight strategy is “speed-based development,” defined as a practical philosophy for quickly converting science and technology into value. This is a concept applicable to any product in any market, ranging from architecture to autos to semiconductors, Swogger noted. Think of it as a five-pronged star of “rights,” he explained — the right leadership overseeing the right people, on the right projects, with the right information, and right execution.

The right leadership means creating and selling a vision that delivers. Using the right people means, for example, a scientist/manager partnership to lead development, and using a flexible allocation of resources. Also, projects must be selected with an eye toward “net present value,” and link business strategy to individual results, involving marketing early in the process. The right information means using science, involving customers early and utilizing experts (internal, consultants, etc). Performance requirements should be used for application development, and should link to prior experience to help avoid mistakes, he said.

All these add up to execution, governed by Six-Sigma methodology, Swogger noted, adding that other keys include making and delivering commitments, emphasizing decision making, and using a parallel process.

Swogger also discussed “high-throughput” research, which he described as a system of hardware, informatics, workflows, and researchers. He explained how a “high-throughput” catalyst development has accelerated Dow’s discovery rate, citing work with Symyx as an example, which started with polyethylene catalyst development and then pursued polypropylene. This approach is now being transferred across the company for formulations, material science, and chemistry workflows, and even licenses for new devices.

Combining speed and molecular architecture, Dow has seen cycle times drop from years to months for new product lines and from 6-24 months to 2-3 months for product extensions. Further, 17 of 19 new products under these strategies have been deemed “successful,” with eight out of 10 successful product extensions instead of one out of three. — J.M.


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