Friday, 10 January 2020

Innovation - something counter-intuitive

You wouldn’t expect an oil company to be working on the leading edge of space and robotics technology, but that’s where the vision of Perth-based Woodside Petroleum has taken the company. It works with NASA and the Australian Space Agency, among other partners. 

Wait, what? But Woodside’s just an oil company! True – but it’s one that understands its business very well. It's more than 'just' an oil company.

The company produces and sells oil and Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) from a number of sites onshore and offshore and around the world. To do that efficiently and safely, it is turning increasingly to robotic technology deployed across continental distances (using satellite links) to manage remote production and distribution sites. And it invests in R&D into things like surface coatings, AI and hydrogen as a future fuel. More than that – it commercialises the resulting IP (if it works – sometimes it doesn’t). That makes it an innovator.

Woodside’s CEO, Peter Coleman, was interviewed in the business section of The Australian today (Friday 10 January) and had this to say about innovation.

“We conduct our own R&D we leverage that we fund through our partner universities – Monash, the University of Western Australia, Curtin and Edith Cowan. For us it’s all about using technology to solve business problems. [For example] maintenance is one of the biggest costs for an asset-intensive business like ours. The prize is substantial – in maintenance alone, there is an opportunity for a 30 per cent cost saving, which reaches hundreds of millions of dollars pretty quickly.”

Funny – he could almost be talking about managing a fleet of warships, or combat aircraft, or tanks. A 30 per cent saving is big news in anybody’s currency. However, he doesn’t disclose what the company invests annually in R&D and innovation – but it’s pretty substantial, if that’s the scale of the savings he’s hoping for.

Innovation has been described simply as ‘making a difference’ – the trick is usually to identify where making a difference can have a significant effect. Which is why Woodside is working with space and robotics specialists as well as traditional petroleum and mechanical, mining and marine engineers. It has a sense of those parts of its business where the leverage yielded by an investment in some form of innovation can deliver significant effects. And it’s not afraid to be counter-intuitive in what it does. 

Looks obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s not - there’s leadership and culture at play here, and they make a massive difference. 

This is the last in a series of posts about innovation, just to get your juices flowing at the start of the year.

Happy New Year everybody!

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