BA 850
Sustainability Driven Innovation

Process Innovation


Process Innovation


Process innovations are arguably one of the most evolved forms of innovation, in that they have roots in literally hundreds of years of product and service development. From the cotton gin to the assembly line, process innovation is a classic form of innovation, as well as one which typically allows the organization intellectual property protection, and therefore, some level of defensible differentiation over time.

From The Ten Types of Innovation:

Process innovations involve the activities and operations that produce an enterprise's primary offerings. Innovating here requires a dramatic change from “business as usual” that enables the company to use unique capabilities, function efficiently, adapt quickly, and build market-leading margins. Process innovations often form the core competency of an enterprise, and may include patented or proprietary approaches that yield advantage for years or even decades. Ideally, they are the “special sauce” you use that competitors simply can't replicate.

“Lean production,” whereby managers reduce waste and cost throughout a system, is one famous example of a Process innovation. Other examples include process standardization, which uses common procedures to reduce cost and complexity, and predictive analytics, which model past performance data to predict future outcomes–helping companies to design, price, and guarantee their offerings accordingly.

Process Innovation in the Sustainability Space

MBA Polymers Revolutionary Recycling Separation Process

The world of recycling and waste minimization is one which feels to continuously be on the edge of a revolutionary development but is many times fraught with frustration. Regardless of the constraints and struggles on the part of the recycler, all paths lead to the classic problem on the demand side of recycled plastics: There are relatively few applications for black, low quality, downcycled plastics, which are typically problematic in molding and processing. These are the types of plastics that are downcycled into parts like automotive wheel well liners and fairings (if you open the hood of your car and see a black, "swirly" finished plastic, this is low grade, downcycled plastic.) Like all supply and demand balances, if all plastics are recycled into black, low-quality plastics of limited marketable use, the price per ton is going to be suppressed.

Needless to say, if plastics can not only be recycled and repelletized by type, color, and other properties, it would represent a revolution in recycling and plastics. This is what MBA Polymers can do, and has roughly 60 patents to cover the process by which it does so.

From an excellent Pop Sci article on Mike Biddle:

"But by the time he saw Puckett's film, Biddle had quietly achieved what most thought impossible: He had discovered how to separate certain mixed plastics completely. This was no mere down-cycling. Biddle could take the plastic from, say, a laptop, reduce it to its purest form, and sell it back to a computer company to make another laptop. What's more, at his facility in Richmond, California, Biddle could produce recycled plastic with as little as 10 percent of the energy required to make virgin. In a world where people use 240,000 plastic bags every 10 seconds, where passengers on U.S. airlines consume one million plastic cups every six hours, where consumers in total discard more than 100 million tons of plastic annually, closing the loop on production and recycling could reduce global dependence on oil, the source material for virgin plastic. It could conceivably influence not only the price of oil, but global flows of trade as well. And it could dramatically reduce the wholesale smothering of communities across Asia and Africa with hazardous e-waste. If Biddle could convince people to give him waste rather than dump it around the globe, he could conceivably change the world."

Please watch the following 10:51 video. If the video is not displaying on the page, please view the video on the external site. The transcript is also available on the external site.

Video: We can recycle plastic (10:51)

Credit: Mike Biddle. "We can recycle plastic." TED.
Click here for a transcript of the We can recycle plastic video.

I'm a garbage man, and you might find it interesting that I became a garbage man because I absolutely hate waste. I hope within the next 10 minutes to change the way you think about a lot of the stuff in your life. And I'd like to start at the very beginning. Think back when you were just a kid. How did you look at the stuff in your life? Perhaps it was like these toddler rules. It's my stuff if I I saw it first. The entire pile is my stuff if I'm building something. The more stuff that's mine, the better. And of course, it's your stuff if it's broken. Well, after spending about 20 years in the recycling industry, it's become pretty clear to me that we don't necessarily leave these toddler rules behind as we develop into adults. And let me tell you why I have that perspective. Because each and every day at our recycling plants around the world, we handle about one million pounds of people's discarded stuff. Now, a million pounds a day sounds like a lot of stuff, but it's a tiny drop of the durable goods that are disposed each and every year around the world, well less than one %.

In fact, the United Nations estimates that there's about 85 billion pounds a year of electronics waste that gets discarded around the world each and every year. And that's one of the most rapidly growing parts of our waste stream. And if you throw in other durable goods like automobiles and so forth, that number well more than doubles. And of course, the more developed the country, the bigger these mountains. Now, when you see these mountains, most people think of garbage. We see above-ground mines. And the reason we see mines is because there's a lot of valuable raw materials that went into making all this stuff in the first place. And it's becoming increasingly important that we figure out how to extract these raw materials from these extremely complicated waste streams. Because as we've heard all week at Ted, the world's getting to be a smaller place with more people in it who want more and more stuff. And of course, They want the toys and the tools that many of us take for granted. And what goes into making those toys and tools that we use every single day? It's mostly many types of plastics and many types of metals.

And the metals we typically get from ore that we mine in ever widening mines and ever deep mines around the world. And the plastics we get from oil, which we go to more remote locations and drill ever deeper wells to extract. And these practices have significant economic and environmental implications that we're already starting to see today. The good news is we are starting to recover materials from our end-of-life stuff and starting to recycle our end-of-life stuff, particularly in regions of the world, like here in Europe, that have recycling policies in place that require that this stuff be recycled in a responsible manner. Most of what's extracted from our end-of-life stuff, if it makes it to a recycler, are the metals. To put that in perspective, and I'm using steel as a proxy here for metals because it's the most common metal, if your stuff makes it to a recycler, probably over 90% of the metals are going to be recovered and reused for another purpose. The plastics are a whole 'nother story. Well less than 10% are are recovered. In fact, it's more like 5%. Most of it's incinerated or landfilled. Now, most people think that's because plastics are a throw away material, have very little value.

But actually, plastics are several times more valuable than steel. And there's more plastics produced and consumed around the world on a volume basis every year than steel. So why is such a plentiful and valuable material not recovered at anywhere near the rate of a less valuable material? Well, it's predominantly because metals are very easy to recycle from other materials and from one another. They have very different densities properties. They have different electrical and magnetic properties, and they even have different colors. So it's very easy for either humans or machines to separate these metals from one another and from other materials. Plastics have overlapping densities over a very narrow range. They have either identical or very similar electrical and magnetic properties, and any plastic can be any color, as you probably well know. So the traditional ways of separating materials just simply don't work for plastics. Another consequence of metals being so easy to recycle by humans is that a lot of our stuff from the developed world, and sadly to say, particularly from the United States, where we don't have any recycling policies in place, like here in Europe, finds its way to developing countries for low cost recycling.

People, for as little as a dollar a day, pick through our stuff. They extract what they can, which is mostly the metals, circuit boards and so forth, and they leave behind mostly what they can't recover, which is, again, mostly the plastics. Or they burn the plastics to get to the metals in burnhouses like you see here, and they extract the metals by hand. Now, why this might be the low economic cost solution? This is certainly not the low environmental or human health and safety solution. I call this environmental arbitrage, and it's not fair, it's not safe, and it's not sustainable. Now, because the plastics are so plentiful, and by the way, those other methods don't lead to the recovery of plastics, obviously. But people do try to recover the plastics. This is just one example. This is a photo I took standing on the rooftops of one of the largest slums in the world in Mumbai, India. They store their plastics on the roofs. They bring them below those roofs into small workshops like these, and people will try very hard to separate the plastics by color, by shape, by feel, by any technique they can.

And sometimes they'll resort to what's known as the burn and sniff technique, where they'll burn the plastic and smell the fumes to try to determine the type of plastic. None of these techniques result in any amount of recycling in any significant way. And by the way, please don't try this technique at home. So what are we to do about this space-age material, at least what we used to call a space-age material is plastics. Well, I certainly believe that it's far too valuable and far too abundant to keep putting back in the ground or certainly stand up and smoke. So about 20 years ago, I literally started in my garage tinkering around, trying to figure out how to separate these very similar materials from each other, and eventually enlisted a lot of my friends in the mining world, actually in the plastics world. And we started going around to mining laboratories around the world because after all, we're doing above-ground mining. And we eventually broke the code. This is the last frontier of recycling. It's the last major the material to be recovered at any significant amount on the Earth. And we finally figured out how to do it.

And in the process, we started recreating how the plastics industry makes plastics. The traditional way to make plastics is with oil or petrochemicals. You break down the molecules, you recombine them in very specific ways to make all the wonderful plastics that we enjoy each and every day. We said there's got to be a more sustainable way to make plastics, and not just sustainable from an environmental standpoint, sustainable from an economic standpoint as well. Well, a good place to start is with waste. It certainly doesn't cost as much as oil, and it's plentiful as I hope that you've been able to see from the photographs. And because we're not breaking down the plastic into molecules and recombining them, we're using a mining approach to extract the materials. We have significantly lower capital costs in our plant and equipment. We have enormous energy savings. I don't know how many other projects on the planet right now can save 80 to 90% of the energy compared to making something the traditional way. And instead of plopping down several hundred million dollars to build a chemical plant that will only make one type of plastic for its entire life, our plants can make any type of plastic we feed them.

And we make a drop in replacement for that plastic that's made from petrochemicals. Our customers get to enjoy huge CO₂ savings. They get to close the loop with their products, and they get to make more sustainable products. In the short time period I have, I want to show you a little bit of a sense about how we do this. It starts with metal recyclers who shred our stuff in the very small bits. They recover the metals and leave behind what's called shredder residue. It's their waste. A very complex mixture of materials, but predominantly plastics. We take out the things that aren't plastic, such as the metals they miss, carpeting, foam, rubber, wood, glass, paper, you name it, even an occasional dead animal, unfortunately. And it goes in the first part of our process here, which is more like traditional recycling. We're sieving the material, we're using magnets, we're using air classification. It looks like a Willy Wanka factory at this point. At the end of this process, we have a mixed plastic composite, many different types of plastics and many different grades of plastics. This goes into the more sophisticated part of our process and the really hard work, multi-step separation process begins.

We grind the plastic down to about the size of your small fingernail. We use a very highly automated process to sort those plastics not only by type, but by grade. And at the end of that part of the process, come little flakes of plastic, one type, one grade. We then use optical sorting to color-sort this material. We blend it in 50,000-pound blending silos. We push that material to extruders where we melt it, push it through small dye holes, make spaghetti-like plastic strands, and we chop those strands into what are called pellets. And this becomes the currency of the plastics industry. This is the same material that you would get from oil. And today we're producing it from your old stuff, and it's going right back in to your new stuff. So now, instead of your stuff ending up on a hillside in a developing country or literally going up in smoke, you can find your old stuff back on top of your desk in new products, in your office, or back at work in your home. And these are just a few examples of companies that are buying our plastic, replacing virgin plastic to make their new products.

So I hope I've changed the way you look at least some of the stuff your life. We took our clues from Mother Nature. Mother Nature wastes very little, reuses practically everything. And I hope that you stop looking at yourself as a consumer. That's a label I've always hated my entire life. And think of yourself as just using resources in one form until they can be transformed to another form for another use later in time. And finally, I hope you agree with me to change that last toddler rule just a little bit to, if it's broken, it's my stuff. You for your time. Thank you.


I had the pleasure of judging an entrepreneurship competition at Penn State when Vortic, as a business venture, was but a glimmer in the eye of a team of upperclassmen, but even then, their focus, determination, and innovation was quite evident.

Vortic's core business is taking a uniquely stylish (and patent pending) approach to watchmaking, by upcycling century-old pocketwatch movements into beautiful, Corning Gorilla Glass-faced watches. Because of the variation of these old pocketwatches, they created a proprietary case design and fit process for each individual movement, which is then 3D printed and machined individually.

Their decidedly high-end and high-tech approach to upcycling resulted in their Kickstarter reaching its $10,000 goal within 12 hours, eventually landing at $41,035. Since then, the popularity of their watches means that you now have only the opportunity to purchase a backorder slot for your own Vortic... starting at $1,395.

Please watch the following 8:35 video:

Video: How Watches Are Made: Vortic Watch Co. (Fort Collins, Colorado) (8:35)

Credit: Worn & Wound. "How Watches Are Made: Vortic Watch Co. (Fort Collins, Colorado)." YouTube. August 8, 2018.
Click here for a transcript of the How Watches Are Made: Vortic Watch Co. (Fort Collins, Colorado) video.

TYLER WOLFE, CO-FOUNDER: Most of what I do here was definitely not training that I got in a classroom. For the most part, everything that I know that I do I learned hands-on. Here we're going all the way from computer model to finished product under one roof. I do something new every single day. Every single watch is different.

R.T. CUSTER, CO-FOUNDER: We wanted to start Vortic because we wanted to make a truly American-made watch. We figured we could make the cases and crowns and everything else but we needed an American-made movement and no one was making them for resale at that time. You know, this is 2013, 2014 we were talking about this and so as we did research, we found those old pocket watches that have been orphaned from their their original cases and we realized that people are literally throwing away those pieces of American history when they were scrapping those gold cases. We figured, you know, we can solve that problem and save those pocket watches and also make one heck of a product at the same time and so we put that idea on Kickstarter in 2014 and apparently it was a good idea because we still exist.


R.T. CUSTER, CO-FOUNDER: So in the beginning of Vortic, we decided to use metal 3D printing, and it's actually called direct metal laser sintering for our product because we couldn't afford the minimum order quantities from contract manufacturers. So, if I wanted to make a watch, and I wanted that one manufacturer to just make the case, we would have to order five hundred to a thousand watches worth of cases. The inherent problem with salvaging these pocket watches is they're all different sizes, they're all different configurations, and they were made by, you know, ten different companies across eighty years of production. And so, 3D printing actually solves a lot of those issues because we can make just a couple dozen at a time for a reliable and achievable cost, and then we could design all of our fixtures and post-processing to adjust those cases to fit the one-of-a-kind movements that we use. We kind of tripped into what seemed like a really good idea, and it's also been a lot of fun and a huge learning experience, as the 3D printing technology has come a long way since we started.

TYLER WOLFE, CO-FOUNDER: So step one to bring a lot of the manufacturing in-house was buying a couple manual machines, and that was our introduction into machining. So I would take a case, sit down there and use hand cranks to to move the machine around, and it would take me somewhere between three and four hours to do a case, and when I say three to four hours, that's three to four hours of hands on the machine. So with our Haas CNC Mills, I have to spend a lot more time setting them up. So, designing the fixture, and creating the tool paths, testing a program, but once I make one part it's essentially the press of a button to duplicate it. That's the huge difference. Manual machines are great for making one unique part, but the CNC machines can duplicate that part over and over and over again. Everything we do, I just I like to think we're combining old technology with the most efficient new technology to make something that's totally unique, beautiful, interesting with a story and not charge $50,000 for it.


R.T. CUSTER, CO-FOUNDER: Our American artisan series is what we call it right now, basically our pocket watch conversion, it was actually inspired by railroad grade pocket watches. Those railroad grade ones actually are lever set. What that means is there's a lever actuator system near one o'clock on the dial and you actually had to remove the whole front bezel including the glass of the pocket watch to pull that lever in order to set the time, and it was literally a safety mechanism on the railroads back then so you couldn't accidentally change what time it was, but for us it makes for a huge engineering problem that we had to solve. And so we invented this casing system for railroad grade pocket watches that we call the railroad edition of the American artisan series. We decided to mill this railroad edition from a block of titanium so that we could make sure absolutely everything is perfect, and we could control the entire process on our CNC Mills. Really, what we're able to make now is the product we originally wanted to make, this amazing railroad grade pocket watch. Now we have a home for those.

TYLER WOLFE, CO-FOUNDER: Due to the fact that this lever set system requires access to the movement it is a huge design issue. I don't know the number of iterations that we did before we got to this this final version, but it just, every day, we were like how are we gonna solve this. We use the big wave board and we just kind of sat down and said, what's possible? They would throw out a crazy idea, and I'd say, I guess I can try and make that see if it works, let's see if this works, see if that works. It'd be very strange to sell a watch where a customer can touch the dial, and it'd be very strange to sell a watch that's not water resistant. So those two things alone are really what motivate the removable bezel. First of all, it uses a cam lock system instead of a thread. Before it was very difficult to get the front of the watch off and when you take off that bezel the crystal is still in the watch so the customer who does not have any access to the dial. This product is definitely a result of iteration and thinking outside of the box.

R.T. CUSTER, CO-FOUNDER: What's next for us is fully modern watches, and we're still going to make the artisan series with the old pocket watches, but we can layer on a new product line that we can completely design from the ground up, work with the Swiss experts making modern movements for us, and build a product that is truly Vortic, that says it on the dial. And I think that all really ties in well to what we stand for and our tagline, which we say America wasn't assembled, it was built. And we say that because every watch we make is built here. We try to make as much of it in Colorado, in this building, as we possibly can, and I think that's what separates us from companies that make thousands of the same thing is that every watch is handmade just for you and that to me is the difference between built and assembled.