Imerys’ minerals are used in areas as diverse as construction, steel-making, paper, automotive, energy, ceramics, coatings and filter media.
However, the lack of differentiation between some of the more common mineral substances used in industry has forced the French multinational to focus its efforts on innovation and developing new mineral formulations.
“Some people have preconceptions about the industry, that it is dirty and low tech, but there is a lot of real science going on in the area of minerals,” says Jarrod Hart, principal process engineer for the company’s Performance & Filtration Additives unit.
“Product development projects get killed at every stage, and for every hundred ideas we see, only one or two make it through
“I might spend one week in a quarry understanding the geology of a talc deposit, and the next week I might be in a brewery seeing how our diatomite is used to filter beer.”
While Imerys does provide a wide array of basic, low cost minerals, they are really focused on developing higher value ’functional additives’ that provide unique advantages, such as super strong ceramics, wafer-thin sheet-like nanoparticles, or even carbon nanotubes, he says.
Hart says he is mainly involved in those projects with a high degree of novelty and risk exposure.
“We have to develop a product and get it to the customers as quickly as possible, because even if they need our new product one year, there is always a chance they may decide to reformulate the following year, leaving us with a white elephant,” he says.
“So I get assigned to those products we haven’t done before - where we don’t have a track record, or an obvious process to follow,” he says.
This often involves “piecing together the elements of a new product - choosing the best location, designing the best process, helping to assemble a project team and seeing a new plant take shape.”
However this role can throw up substantial challenges, he says.
“If you are making a new type of factory that no one has ever made before, you need to be open in communication, bring in lots of experts, and solve problems on the fly.”
But while risk-taking is company policy at Imerys, recklessness is not.
“Product development projects get killed at every stage, and for every hundred ideas we see, only one or two make it through,” says Hart.
As the group’s ’corporate’ process engineer, Hart says he takes a central role in monitoring and policing projects, and acting as an interface between engineers and management.
“We use a stage-gate system for innovation,” he says.
“Everyone is welcome to put in ideas and if they pass muster then we move to a feasibility analysis. From there we conduct a business analysis, which asks how much it will cost to make, and so forth.
“If it has a potentially good payback time, then it will be given full project status and then it really gets the full treatment. But it still might take us ten years from that first demo in the lab to transform it into a commercial product.”
In this capacity, the process engineer is often the common link between the R&D lab, the sales team and the source of the raw materials, says Hart.
“We are constantly helping to assess the viability of new technology ideas, and then every now and then we have to take one of those ideas and make it a reality.”
On the path to growth, Imerys has also acquired numerous companies, building up a community of process engineers and managers that are spread over 250 plants in more than 50 countries.
“Overall, the benefits of diversity hugely outweigh the drawbacks,” says Hart.
“Multiple cultures bring multiple ways of problem solving, and this process allows great solutions to be shared. But while we do allow for some ’unique’ local practices, this is not so when it comes to safety and the environment. We always aim to exceed the legal safety requirements of each country we are in.”
In spite of its size, Imerys has a very flat and decentralised structure, says Hart, which means that everyone bears a lot of responsibility, even early on in their career.
“While visibility is important, you don’t need to be special friends with anyone to get ahead here,” he says.
“There’s a quote: ’it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission’ - while obviously this can’t apply to issues of safety or legality, it is absolutely applicable when trying to make things happen in one’s early career.”
While risk-taking is applauded at Imerys, sticking to the facts and making only realistic promises is essential for winning trust from colleagues, says Hart.
“I have been involved in four or five large projects in the last ten years and the first one was to create alternative additives, which meant understanding the intricacies of how paint works.”
This was quite eye-opening for someone coming from metal mining where all you have to do is make gold or copper as pure as possible, he says.
“Where I was used to crushing rocks, I was suddenly required to understand the role of optics in order to develop a low-cost alternative to titania, which gives paint products their reflective qualities,” he says.
“I spent several years working on projects like that, looking closely at customers process challenges and trying to solve them. Not a lot of manufacturing companies using plastic and metal think of mineral solutions for their problems. But if you have a close relationship with them, you can visit their plant to gain the necessary insight.”
The information technology revolution has also had an impact on the minerals transformation sector, says Hart.
“The biggest change I have observed since I have been working in this industry is the immediacy of communication. We can iterate on drawings with a contractor several times in one day that would have taken weeks a generation ago.
“But while computers may change operating systems and programming languages may evolve, the laws of physics do not. This means that once you understand the concept of mass and energy balances, you have a tool for life.”