Editorial: Keeping Up With the Times | AIChE

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Editorial: Keeping Up With the Times


Evan Pfab

Innovation and timelessness aren’t always hand in hand. Whether it’s the buildings going up outside, the cars driving past, or any number of the products we use on a daily basis — some designs look as if they weren’t made to last. Part of maintaining an innovative and competitive edge means being ready to jump on what’s next; designing a lasting, timeless product can be less of a priority. After all, how timeless can a new iPhone be if they are coming out with a new one next year that will make you race to the store to trade in your old one?

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Mad Men lately, but many of the latest products are less innovative than they are “capturing.” Often, we chase products just to have the latest design, not because they are truly innovative or changing something significant. Consumerism is a perpetual cycle of chasing the next big thing, which is certainly not sustainable. This may work for digital tools like software because they are malleable and can be easily updated, but most hardware and physical devices are not designed in a way to be upgraded or retrofitted. Thus, recycling and circular end-use options are required; otherwise, future generations will have to deal with the consequences of these “timeless” products.

Consider plastics, once celebrated for their versatility and durability, now posing a significant threat to our environment as they persist for generations, polluting oceans and infiltrating ecosystems. The rise of “forever chemicals” only adds to the urgency, with substances like per- and poly-fluoroalkylated substances (PFAS) raising concerns about their long-term impact on human health and the environment. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just updated the Safe Drinking Water Act to regulate a new class of materials for the first time since 1996. (See the news story on p. 5 for more detail.) It’s a stark reminder that innovation and timelessness in design must be coupled with a commitment to circularity and sustainability.

Each year, we innovate to solve problems like these. Much of this innovation, like in the SBE Special Section on Engineering Biotherapeutics (pp. 23–43), requires collaboration. Scientific breakthroughs frequently involve different parties or companies working together, as we saw closely during the pandemic.

Navigating these partnerships requires clear communication and consideration of shared interests. Companies must carefully determine what to share, especially as both technology and corporations evolve. The article, “Protecting Intellectual Property in Joint Ventures and Other Collaborations,” on pp. 53–56 provides insights into this process. Authors Paul Townsend and Charles Collins-Chase emphasize the importance of defining partners, understanding rights, safeguarding trade secrets, and determining ownership of new intellectual property. Easier said than done, these efforts require clear and unambiguous communication throughout the entire process, especially upfront.

As fast-paced as the industry is, it can be hard to keep up with the times. And what chemical engineering progress or collaborations will we be talking about 50 years from now? At CEP, we certainly aim to cover the topics that will last and be relevant for years to come, but only time will tell.

Evan Pfab, Associate Editor


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