21 July 2003 15:05 [Source: ICIS news]
In attempting to create a new market facing structure, French specialty company Rhodia also has to get its research and development (R&D) set up right. To that end, the company is already looking towards the "lab of the future" dedicated to accelerating innovation processes and streamlining current R&D methodologies.
Chief executive, Jean-Pierre Tirouflet, last week gave some thought to what management wants from such a resource. He envisaged a facility specialising in fundamental new areas like robotised or miniaturised applications tests. High throughput screening is very much the name of the game. He also looked towards new methods of acquiring basic process data so as to accelerate the industrialisation of the ideas coming out of company laboratories.
Undoubtedly, management understands that Rhodia has to look towards the marriage of chemistry and chemical engineering with disciplines like information technology (IT), electronics, micromechanics, mathematics and instrumentation. It is at the boundary of different sciences - and different applications - that the real opportunities will lie.
Tirouflet told the company’s third scientific symposium in Lyon, France on 17 July (the meeting ran from 15 July) that Rhodia had four objectives: to increase innovation productivity; increase the success rate of innovation projects; accelerate the time to market of innovations; and provide a competitive advantage for manufacturing technologies. In short he was highlighting the ongoing targets of chemical management the world over - getting ideas through and out of the laboratories and into the market place faster.
Rhodia has, however, put more pressure on R&D to perform by developing its new corporate structure. This takes the businesses and their support function out of silos and opens up the group to the market place. The company believes it is creating something new and that the model, which aligns the product and technology base much more closely with individual customers’ needs, is going to reap dividends. It is also trying to persuade the investment community that what it is doing is unique.
At the market level, Rhodia’s approach has been to get closer to customers and develop with them new product profiles based on specific needs. Projects are closely controlled and the French specialty chemicals producer says that it remains very much in the driving seat when it sets out to develop cross-border technology fixes or new products/materials. Unfortunately, the company’s technology base was hardly focused when Rhodia was created in the late 1990s but the company has looked to its strengths and how it might be able to cross fertilise expertise and develop specific functionalities which can be sold – or rather used to develop new products for.
At the symposium in Lyon - the heart of the company’s research community - attended by researchers, academics, manufacturers and students, Rhodia aimed to focus on the technologies of the future. Speed to market was a constant theme as were the challenges of sustainability to the specialty chemical industry.
Tirouflet said that Rhodia needs a new technical approach that will comprehensively accelerate the research process. To that end the plan is to push high throughput experimentation at the research centres and generalise new approaches at the levels of product conception and process updating.
Innovation lies at the heart of the new Rhodia business model but the plan is very much results oriented. The company, for instance, wants to focus on new products. The aim is for more than 20% of sales from products less than five years old and these sales growing faster than industry peers. It aims for partnerships covering 75% of R&D programmes. Its marketing innovation directors are the vital link between key accounts and R&D. They are also charged with the job of bringing together the appropriate skills from within and outside the organisation.
Rhodia employs more than 1500 researchers worldwide but its annual spending on R&D (3.3% of sales in 2002) is focused on five R&D centres in France, the US, Brazil and China and 20 technical centres. Getting that mix of assets and expertise right - and building the links to the outside organisations that will be vital to the future of the company’s product offering and development - is a key management challenge.
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