Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Problem with Copper and Bird Droppings: Don't Doom Your Innovation Pipeline

Building an innovation pipeline? Great! But before you complete your system, there's a lesson to be learned from a real-world failure of copper pipes discussed in a recent edition of Design News. I refer to "The Case of the Oleaginous Inlet" by Kenneth Russell, Professor Emeritus, MIT, Cambridge, MA (July 16, 2007, p. 118). Here's the problem he faced:
Oils become viscous and hard to pump at low temperatures. In the case at hand, refined mineral oil was being stored in a large tank equipped with a heat exchanger to keep the stuff pumpable. Fairly low temperature steam circulated through an array of ¾-inch copper tubes immersed in the oil and then discharged into a dry well. Several of the tubes broke, which allowed the mineral oil to leak into the dry well and the surrounding ground and finally into Mount Hope (RI) Bay. Local environmentalists and waterfront residents were not pleased by the leak.

I was retained by the operator of the tank to find the cause of the piping fracture. My client, of course, hoped to be exonerated.

The tubing was just plain copper that, for some reason, had broken after only two years of service. Neither refined mineral oil nor clean steam attack copper, so the cause of failure was a mystery.
Scanning electron microscope images of the pipes suggested that the problem was corrosive attack on the outside surfaces of the pipe. This was puzzling because copper is usually inert and does not corrode easily. But ammonia can attack it, and ammonia from bird droppings, dog urine, or other animal sources could have been the cause.

In this case, it appeared that some source of ammonia (bird droppings from above, perhaps) had landed on the copper tubes while they had been in storage, causing weakening of the metal that later resulted in failure of the pipe in use, under cycles of internal pressure and change in temperature.

When it comes to innovation, even a seemingly robust pipelines can actually be surprisingly sensitive to certain waste products from above. Failure to properly shield innovation connections and pipelines can result in an environment where the pipeline can crack under pressure and fail.

Innovation pipelines - the people and processes behind innovation - need to be treated carefully in order to realize the full returns possible on those investments. Special rules, managerial sponsorship and protection, environments where involvement and creativity is encouraged and expected, and other steps can keep those pipelines healthy and functioning for years to come. But if soiled with normal corporate contamination and fall-out, connections can fail and pipelines can quickly become empty and even sources of extreme waste.

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