Bringing the outside in
When satellite engineer Robert Fischell read an ad in a magazine 40 years ago for a pacemaker battery, bragging about how it lasted two years, he said, “Wait a minute – this is in somebody’s chest! It lasts two years and they’re proud of it?” This would mean having surgery every other year to replace the battery. He went on to invent a battery that recharges by magnetic induction through the skin and lasts a patient’s lifetime.
Industries tend to have commonly accepted practices that evolve gradually. Real breakthrough innovation usually comes from the outside. Albert Einstein once said we cannot solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that we used when we created them.
The world of research and development uses the Technology Readiness Level scale (TRL), which suggests a linear progression of a new technology from the early conceptual stages to the final field-testing and deployment. It is a useful simplification, but the reality is more complicated.
To start with, there’s the so-called ‘valley of the death’ when the cost of taking prototypes beyond relatively cheap early stage development exceeds the available funds. Time is also of the essence with deployment often taking longer than investors are willing to wait.
Additionally, the linear progression of a technology across the TRL scale ignores the context in which that technology could be used. When Apple Stores began hitting our streets and shopping centres, traditional checkouts were missing. Instead, every shop assistant was empowered to take card payments anywhere in the shop, at any time, using their iPhone. In fact, we can now use our own smartphone to pay and walk out.
What a stark contrast to how things work on an oil and gas installation, be it onshore or offshore, where smartphones, tablets and digital cameras and devices are not allowed, as they’re not intrinsically safe – or in other words, explosion proof.
This shows that the TRL scale is not universal across industries. A technology – smartphones in this case – which is at level 9 in the retail sector and in everyday life is at a much lower level in safety critical industries like oil and gas, where significant development is needed for it to qualify for use.
The Innovation Hub at the Oil & Gas Technology Centre has defined a Collaborative Innovation Model
(Figure 1) that overcomes the one-dimensional limitation of the TRL scale and combines it with four different types of innovation (as described by Greg Satel in Harvard Business Review in 2013).
This model shows that technology innovation can be generated outside of the linear TRL progression, by adopting and adapting from other industries and accelerating deployment to the industry.
Fig.1 The Hub Collaborative Innovation Model (© 2016)
The Innovation Hub at the Oil & Gas Technology Centre brings together innovators, small and large suppliers, research institutions and operators - from inside and outside the industry - to find new solutions to known problems and generate value-adding applications for solutions known and deployed in other sectors.
When a problem is well defined – for example, eliminating the need to have people entering vessels for inspection or detect corrosion under insulation – we bring experts from different disciplines and industries together to provide new thinking.
As innovation often comes from the outside, different points of view from multidisciplinary experts help teams go beyond collective cognitive biases and deliver breakthrough thinking. State of the art technology such as virtual and augmented reality enable these ‘outsiders’ to fully understand the problem in its context, so that their imagination and creativity is used to find solutions – not wasted in imagining the problem.
If we look back through the history of oil and gas exploration and production, the industry, around the world, has a great record of solving problems through engineering; safely and efficiently getting the job done. However, for various reasons, including a focus on daily and annual production, as well as the cyclical nature of our business, the industry has not been at the forefront of technology innovation compared to some others. For example, the use of composite materials, robotics and 3D printing have not yet made in-roads into our industry despite the potential gains they offer.
When it comes to technologies that have developed in other industries or contexts, and which do not have an obvious problem to solve in the oil and gas industry, there is a tendency to avoid considering ‘solutions looking for a problems’.
Disruptive innovation usually involves lateral thinking – applying a known solution to a different context. The digital revolution reveals so many examples of disruptive technologies that were not designed to solve a known problem, but which have been game changing in one sector or another.
The Hub’s Open Innovation Programmes include tech talks and workshops focused on introducing new technologies that don’t have an obvious oil and gas industry problem to solve, and in engaging with the companies to investigate their disruptive game changing potential in the oil and gas sector.
By providing the opportunity to get up close and personal with these technologies, this hands-on experience demystifies the new or emerging technology and helps to move people away from a familiar mindset that goes something like 'we'd rather stick with the devil we know”.
Within the Oil & Gas Technology Centre, our technology showcase area in the Innovation Centre provides an inspiring environment where people can come to experiment with new technology concepts. It is an exciting prospect, and one that will help us to create a culture of innovation in Aberdeen and the North-East of Scotland.