[Classroom of a mandatory theoretical safety training - dialogue between the HR manager of a multinational chemical company, sitting in front, and myself, sitting in the second row]

HR - You are also from the process industry, and I'd like to ask you a question.

Myself - Please.

HR - We try to implement the strictest safety procedures. Yet, I feel that something can be done to increase awareness of our engineers.

Myself - When do you maintain your plants?

HR -During August

Myself - Where are your engineers in August?

HR - On holiday

[I roll my eyes]

[Dialogue ends]


  • Even a non-technical person can understand that there is something wrong with today's approach to process plant safety and operation.
  • Outsourcing and undue reliance on software tools are sacking opportunities for engineers to understand what is happening in the plants.
  • The hallmark of a safe plant is an engineer who understands and feels what is happening inside the pipes. Way more than Hazops and certificates.

Forget apps. Everybody is trying, and you have meager chances to be the next unicorn.

Forget a toll parking lot in the city center. Cars are not fashionable nowadays.

Forget drug smuggling. Most stakeholders would raise eyebrows.

This is a time of reconstruction. You need to start by fulfilling the very basic needs to set up a sustainable business and to foster further growth in the system.

1 ) Find your niche

Let's focus on basic chemistry. Take Italy, my country. Years of bad politics and management destroyed the production infrastructure of the most basic bricks of the industry.

UN COMTRADE database collects customs declarations from all around the world. A simple query highlights sustained demand for many basic chemical products.

A few examples here below (all figures in USD)

hydrogen peroxidejpg

custic sodajpg



Pick your product. There has to be sustained internal demand from a decent number of clients. You do not want to get stuck with a single customer.

2 ) Define your plant

Aim at the right product capacity. 20-30% of imports is probably a good target. It is big enough to catch the attention of the internal market, but it will not disturb the world trade of the product.

Select a few candidate technologies. CAPEX, Utilities, and feedstock consumptions are important but do not underestimate safety and environmental compliance (aim at zero impact, that's possible). This is what will make your plant accepted by the community.

Think about the plant-site with your market in mind. Logistics should play in your favor.

Get a quick CAPEX estimate and run a preliminary financial simulation.

Does it work? Go to the next point.

Doesn't it? Wrong product: go back to point 1.

3) Create conditions

Create expectations.

Explain to your future customers the advantages brought by your project: customizable product, simpler logistics, lower costs, robust dependability. Go to the banks with your clients.

Do not forget the community and the authorities: demonstrate that your project is going to improve the industrial infrastructure, to foster further growth, to employ people. And yet, the environment will be as green as before. Or even greener.

Get all stakeholders involved. Get their feedback, update your project accordingly. Share the perspective benefits.

4) Build your plant

The human factor is essential. Follow the project in all details. Hire sound technical people, with the product flowing in their veins.

Check and understand what the contractors are doing, but also help them to deliver quickly and smoothly.

Keep communicating with all the stakeholders. Have them take ownership of the project.

5) Enjoy your business

Your plant is running, and there will stay for the next 30-50 years. This is your compensation for fulfilling the needs of other industries and of the community.

A study shows that humans' presence increases the concentration of some chemical compounds in a room. It should be no surprise, as metabolism breaks longer organic molecules into smaller ones, and some escape the body when breathing or sweating.

The test measurements indicated that a morning session of three persons in a room increased formaldehyde concentration from 7.20 μg/m3 to 10.8 μg/m3. Under the same conditions, total volatile organic compounds (boiling point 50-260°C) increased by a whopping 191%.

 Key takeaways from the study:

  1. Save money and open your window rather than buying that expensive app-controlled air filter.
  2. Formaldehyde emissions are also a marketing tool. Our body emits formaldehyde in measurable quantities, but nobody points at you. Particleboard panels and laminates are treated much worse.
  3. Typically, screaming against a chemical gets you more attention than trying to make people think.

The first and second derivative economy

The subprime mortgage crisis and the Asian financial crisis exposed the instability of the global economy. The smallest variation and the tiniest variation of a variation may wreak havoc on the fundamentals of the economy. At the same time, the actual values of the economic variables are daintily neglected.

COVID-19 and emperor's new clothes

Coronavirus revealed the fragility of the previous economic paradigm. All of a sudden, globalization, enormous-scale activities and outsourcing became out of fashion.

Whatever is the change coming up, our new foundations should allow us to face it and to transform it into opportunities.

Small is beautiful

Many tiny production sites are more robust than a single world-class plant. Each investment is smaller, therefore turning a project into reality is much easier. Logistic barriers protect the smaller sites from the competition of the largest installations. Product customization is easier and creates stronger ties with the target markets.

Interconnected is better

Core business focus and vertical and horizontal integration had their time. They proved not to be the right way to face the glitches of the markets, which are unforeseeable by definition.

What about a network of different installations, where the products or the wastes of each one can feed another one? That's a guarantee of flexibility and robustness. It has already been done in chemistry and petrochemistry: that's the German verbund concept. It works, and we can extend it.

Let's do it quickly

That's restart time, and speed is of the essence. Simple plants, not harming or even beneficial to the environments, quick to set up and to start-up.