Jerry Joynson’s three decades in the oil industry involved a constant menu of problems to solve, be it optimizing a process or applying an existing technology in a novel way. The lessons he shares below wonderfully capture the spirit of invention underlying many innovator’s lives.
The beauty of the Xinova model is that problem-solving and idea generation is decoupled from the need to invest capital and run a business. Inventors receive a proportion of the benefits without needing to learn how to become entrepreneurs. The model appears to be ideal for those who are serial inventors and who wish to remain free to move fly from idea to idea.”
– Jerry Joynson, Xinova Innovator
One of four brothers, I was the one kid who had a reputation for always asking “why?” and for taking things apart to know how they worked. It was a while before I could also reassemble those things. I think that this inquisitiveness has been the driving force in my work. At home I was involved in fixing and making all sorts of things, including elaborate tree houses, bicycle repair and overhaul, assisting in home extensions and major home repairs, building ‘kit cars’ (a UK phenomenon, where car owners would buy new fiberglass car shells and transfer the mechanicals from their rusting old cars) and so on. Even though I didn’t know it then, I was always going to be an engineer.
Oil industry’s lessons in innovation
After graduating from Loughborough University of Technology in the UK with a degree in Chemical Engineering, I started with Shell International in upstream oil drilling, switching to production support and facilities project delivery early on. I have worked more than 30 years in the oil industry, mostly offshore facilities, and only stepped out of that industry in 2016 after the oil price sank to its recent low. The offshore industry relies on the execution of a steady flow of large (each typically $100’s of millions upwards) infrastructure projects, both new builds and modifications to existing facilities. There are many similarities and yet each is unique which presents an ongoing stream of project and operational problems to be addressed – ideal for anyone who likes to work out how to fix things. And Chemical (or Process) Engineers get to interface with just about everyone in projects and operations. The oil industry has offered me an ongoing stream of fascinating problems to address, and I can honestly say that I have never done the same thing twice in all that time.
Problem solving | Process matters
Getting more production capacity from a facility (debottlenecking) is a common theme. The obvious solutions involve a series of expensive interventions. What I always found more interesting were the process stability improvements which offer a far higher return on investment. One example was two parallel compressor plants which had varying feed pressures: 20% was being drawn as fuel either from one train or the other. An unstable switchover occurred 3 or 4 times a day and was causing massive flaring due to the instability. An expensive control system redesign was proposed. I found that two $50 orifices could be installed upstream of the fuel offtakes to allow a steady 50% to be drawn from each train. On another gas plant a compressor system was shutting down every 2 to 3 days and had been doing so for 2 years, costing millions of dollars of lost revenue. The team was seeking answers from the vendors claiming unsuitable equipment supply. A couple of months of difficult investigation uncovered a simple controller programming fault that was fixed in seconds once offshore access could be provided.
Problem solving | Safety matters
Having worked on drilling rig floors and derricks I was always conscious of just how dangerous the working environment is. Most workers exposed to risks are simply unaware of the huge amounts of energy ‘stored’ in close proximity to where they are working (such as large suspended loads, high voltages, heavy swinging objects, high gas pressures, ships in a swell), and a great deal of focus goes into protecting workers from the risks. What I saw was that there was little focus on inherent safety by minimizing or removing the risks. If the volume of a high-pressure gas is reduced, then the stored energy goes down. A micro reactor with high throughput may be able to produce the same yield as a 100 times larger conventional pressure vessel. Fitting a cheap pump with a spare needing high maintenance is far more dangerous than fitting one highly reliable ultra-low maintenance pump. The insight I gained was that these inherently safer solutions are most often far smaller, have lower life cycle costs and greater running times than the conventional whilst at the same time reducing personnel risks, and I have been pushing this principle whenever possible.
Many oil reservoirs produce copious amounts of sand that fills up separators and erodes piping and valves, and it is difficult to remove continuously. In the 1990s, a novel sand transportation system developed by the Russians. The fall of the Iron Curtain released a swathe of technologies to the West, one of which was developed from a saw mill separation cyclone that had the outside cone eroded. This concept can be used to move large particles into small openings without bridging and carry them long distances without plugging the pipe. Having understood the potential, I managed to persuade our team that this was the right idea to solve our sand problem and within a year we had the oil industry’s first successful installation.
The last 10 years of my oil field experience has been as a Technology Development Director. In that role I had the great fortune to speak with a great many equipment vendors. They provide many solutions to client problems, and in the face of strong competition are constantly seeking to improve. Sadly, many oil industry customers don’t hear them out, and opportunities are lost. In taking the time to listen carefully and question intelligently–to share one’s objectives and problems, engage in a series of what-if discussions, and pull in ideas from other sources–then I have found that one can quickly develop new insights and new useful value-adding solutions.
I’ve been living in Malaysia since 2010 with my Malaysian wife – an Engineer I met working in Monaco – and my family. For the last two years I’ve been working with Steve Willis, another ‘refugee from the oil industry’ (as he likes to describe us) on a variety of projects involving some form of problem identification and solving. Steve is one of the most inventive people I have ever met – he simply doesn’t stop producing ideas, and we have been working together on Xinova projects. We have submitted 70 or 80 ideas, which is great fun. We will typically spend a day each week chatting about client problems that Xinova presents and start dreaming up ideas over copious amounts of coffee (I haven’t told Steve yet that I don’t drink coffee as I don’t want to break the flow!). We are lucky to have very helpful Xinova contacts in Singapore who are ever ready to answer questions, review the seeds of ideas and help direct our efforts to best effect.
In 30 years I have often come up with useful solutions that were implemented, and some of them could have been patented if there were greater will in the industry. I had also thought about how I might have commercialized some of them. I concluded, however, that patents are expensive and the success ratio for individual ideas is low for all inventors. For me the financial risks were too high, and I preferred to continue as I was, despite the fact that most employers do not reward inventors for their ideas sufficiently in my opinion.
The beauty of the Xinova model is that problem-solving and idea generation is decoupled from the need to invest capital and run a business. Inventors receive a proportion of the benefits without needing to learn how to become entrepreneurs. The model appears to be ideal for those who are serial inventors and who wish to remain free to fly from idea to idea.
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