Spotlight
By Rose-Marie Brandwein

Depending on which survey or poll you read, manufacturers are either on the edge of despair over the workforce and attracting viable candidates or euphoric over tax cuts and improved capital spending. However, the real state of manufacturing in the process industries today is far more balanced and optimistic than pundits would have you believe. After nearly two years of operation, the RAPID Manufacturing Institute continues to foster innovation and productivity enhancements through the work of over 70 members, all of whom are actively engaged in building a robust community focused on developing and commercializing new process intensification (PI) and modular process technologies.

RAPID’s CEO, William (Bill) Grieco, has an accomplished career as a senior executive leading teams in R&D, with a focus on product and process development and commercialization. Prior to joining RAPID, he was the Vice President of Energy & Environment at Southern Research, a nonprofit research institute based in Alabama, where he transformed the business from serving only the fossil utility sector into a boutique innovation testing, development, and consulting organization focused on reducing the environmental footprint of energy generation and chemicals production.

After four months in his new role, we sat down with Bill to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing advanced manufacturing in general and the chemical process industries in particular:

RMB: What attracted you to RAPID and, after four months on the job, how have your perceptions changed or shifted?

Making U.S. manufacturing more agile and competitive in the global market is really important to me.  Being able to do that on a national stage through RAPID is what brought me to the role. While I’ve spent the bulk of my career in R&D, the innovation work that I’ve led over the years always focused on improving existing or developing new-to-the-world products and processes. That work only mattered when the products and processes that my teams and I invented were commercialized and put into production.  When that happens, workers in manufacturing plants stay employed and often their companies grow, manufacturing plants expand, and new jobs are created. I’ve come to appreciate how truly important RAPID’s role is! We are a nexus between process innovation, economic development and job creation. 

RMB: You have an impressive background in developing and commercializing products and processes in different industries. How are you leveraging your background to help members in this area?

I’ve been fortunate to have roles in a number of industries—specialty chemicals, advanced drug delivery/pharma, renewable and sustainable energy technologies, primary materials, and others.  So I’ve seen many of the problems that companies in different industries face.  It turns out that many of those problems transcend industry sectors; commonalities exist across different businesses, and I’ve had the opportunity to see some of the connection points.  All of that means that I can help RAPID members identify where PI and modular process technologies might have a role to play across different industries and I know some of the pain points that different industries face.  It also means that I have a broad network across industries and companies. I often find myself making customer connections across industry sectors and helping colleagues build strategic alliances that might not otherwise occur.  That is an invaluable benefit that RAPID can offer members.

RMB: For many organizations PI is still an esoteric concept. What do you say to those who still haven’t embraced the concept fully yet?

I would suggest that executives learn more about it and give it time.  PI and modular process technologies are not universally applicable.  There are cases where the technologies will apply to selected processes for some manufacturers, while others may never build a strong case for incorporating PI or modular processing.  That’s fine, as long as technical and business professionals in each company understand and can make informed decisions about where, when, and how PI fits and can be implemented. These are not one-size-fits-all solutions, but PI and modular processing will offer unique value in many cases.

RMB: What should manufacturers in the process industries focus on next to capitalize on opportunities? And, how do they mitigate the very real problem of finding/hiring qualified candidates?

Building the case for becoming more competitive and for attracting and retaining qualified talent starts with understanding this part of advanced manufacturing.  Manufacturers should focus on understanding the basics of PI and modular processing and learning where and how best to apply PI design principles in their process development and commercialization work.  Being a member of RAPID will help with that.  Through our newsletters, at our meetings, and via deliberate connections that the RAPID team creates, RAPID members can learn about new technology development and best practices for PI and modular process development and deployment.  Members can also learn the basics through RAPID webinars and eLearning courses and will get firsthand experience from the portfolio of projects currently sponsored by RAPID. 

RMB: What activities/events are coming up that you are most excited about that you want members and potential members to know about?

In 2018, RAPID offered 11 webinars, each given by noted industry experts, to introduce key PI and modular processing concepts to general audiences.  In addition, RAPID developed a first-of-a-kind eLearning course to teach The Fundamentals of Process Intensification.  I strongly encourage current and prospective members to review and watch the webinars and to take the eLearning course.  Understanding where and how PI and modular processing fits into a particular business begins with technical and business colleagues learning the basics.

In 2019, the RAPID team will offer additional webinars over the coming months and intends to develop additional eLearning courses to teach specifics about PI and modular processing in greater detail and with stronger focus on the fundamentals.  RAPID will also offer relevant topical programming and member-centric meetings at the AIChE Spring (March 31 to April 4, 2019 in New Orleans) and Annual (November 10-15, 2019 in Orlando) meetings.

Finally, to assist in developing tomorrow’s PI leaders today, we are expanding our intern program so that more undergraduate and graduate students have an opportunity to experience PI through hands-on training and research. 

RMB: What is your vision for RAPID over the next two to three years? 

Simply put, RAPID will be the leading voice for PI and modular processing in the industry. For the long term, I intend for RAPID to be a member-led organization that promotes development and deployment of new technologies that lower cost, reduce risk, and drive more efficient manufacturing in the process industries.

As we complete our second year of funding under a five-year cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Advanced Manufacturing Office, we look forward to our continued collaboration with the DOE over the next three years, but we are also focused on growing our membership and product and service offerings to support future independence after the cooperative agreement with DOE ends.

To accomplish these ambitious goals, we will continue to grow and lead a community of members who are interested in developing and commercializing PI and modular process technologies.  We will continue to develop new educational content to train engineering students and practicing engineers. We want all engineers to understand where and how PI and modular processing can impact their work, and we want to offer the tools that will help those engineers design and deploy the best PI and modular process technologies.  Finally, with member support, we will continue to sponsor innovative R&D projects. 

For media inquiries and information about the RAPID Manufacturing Institute, contact Rose-Marie Brandwein, Director of Membership and Marketing Communications.