Milan-based De Nora Industries is a global supplier of sustainable technologies and has been a preferred partner in some of the most important electrochemical and industrial processes since 1923. Driven by a philosophy of continuous improvement, De Nora markets highly innovative electrodes, electrochemical systems and advanced filtering and disinfectant technologies to resolve issues related to the treatment of public water/ municipal, marine, and industrial waste.
WE MET WITH CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER ALBERTO COMINELLI
How would you summarize your “corebusiness” in layman’s terms?
Our corporate activity is focused on two fronts: the production of electrodes for electrochemistry and the construction of water treatment plants. With regard to the former, I’d start with the fact that there are certain natural chemical reactions that are activated as a result of the supply of electrochemical energy. We construct the electrodes which are used, at an industrial level, to provide the energy that is capable of triggering chemical processes. One example of the application of electrochemistry is the refining of metals, such as copper and zinc, which are normally present in minerals. Another electrochemical process that has been spoken of lately of is water electrolysis, which is used to separate oxygen from hydrogen in order for the latter to become “green” energy.
Who are your main clients and target markets?
For the chloride/sodium part, which represents 50% of our business, our clients are the world’s leading chemical corporations, who use reactions that start with chloride to create elements which are at the base of almost every product. Furthermore, our electrodes are used to create circuits for computers and cell phones, or to produce copper sheets. Another sector that we are active in is swimming pools, especially in the US. In this case, electrodes are used to produce sodium hypochlorite, which is useful for disinfecting water.
In terms of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), how have you managed to marry innovation in chemistry with a vision aimed at minimizing environmental impact?
Our research is constantly focused on optimizing the energy resources that are necessary to produce these electrochemical transformations. The development projects that we are working on are all heading in the direction of the use of clean energy (fuel cells or hydrogen).
Yours is a “family company” that originated from the brilliant intuition of Oronzio De Nora, but over the years it has grown to become an international leader in many markets. What was the pivotal moment that brought about this change in approach?
The quantum leap for the company occurred when Oronzio De Nora decided to acquire the patent for DSA, dimensionally stable anodes. In practice, the positive part of the electrode, which previously was graphite and therefore subject to wear, became titanium, a material that does not wear. At the end of their life, the electrodes regenerate and go on working. Another significant wathershed moment was the 2010 acquisition of two Japanese companies, an operation which took our sales volume from €150 M to €400 M, and the number of employees from 900 to 1600. A few years later we also embraced the water business, which resulted in a further increase in sales by €100 M, definitively moving the company into a more multinational rather than local dimension.
What were the next steps in this ongoing evolution?
With the growth of the business, we had to constantly refine corporate governance, and the main tool that we entrusted this to was SAP (Systems Applications and Products in Data Processing), which we gradually introduced into all fields. At the same time, we are continuing a significant transformation in “supply chain” management aimed at improving performance, both in terms of efficacy, reducing delivery times, and efficiency, by optimizing the products in the warehouses: a total reorganization of order fulfilment process, from its arrival to the company until the product is shipped to the client. For the manufacturing part, on the other hand, thanks to Staufen Consulting, we are pursuing “Lean Transformation” measures in all of our manufacturing sites which, thanks to a gradual, but radical, change in approach, are aimed at achieving improved results and productivity. The processes applied, from the “water” area to the “front end”, to the “quotation” part, relating to the drafting of tenders, will be shortly be extended worldwide with the objective of achieving efficiency at a global level.
ING. ALBERTO COMINELLI
Chief Operations Officer
Industrie De Nora S.p.A.
“The development projects that we are working on are all heading in the direction of utilizing clean energy (fuel cells or hydrogen).”
Your products have a very high technological content. How do you manage the processes linked to innovation?
Innovation, on the one hand, and research and development, on the other, are two very distinct aspects on which De Nora has invested a lot of resources. There are two pillars that we have based our efforts on to increase our capacity for innovation: for one, internally, we are trying to locate and grow talented people who master the necessary, also pioneering, skills and technology. To date we have identified around fifty innovation champions in the group’s various sites, with the objective of facilitating the generation and harvesting of ideas. Plus, externally, we are focused on open innovation, or innovation generated by operating beneficial relationships with a network of parties outside of De Nora, such as universities, research centers, competence centers, startups, etc., with specific and diversified knowledge who, together, allow us to develop new ideas, new products, and new technologies. A widespread organization open to both external and internal stimuli, enabling us to be the leaders in the sector and which, in recent years alone, allowed us to achieve savings of several million euros on the pipeline.
Remaining on the topic of innovation, what fields are you currently concentrating your work on?
At the moment, if we look at the Research and Development sector, we are focused on several objectives: improving the efficiency of “fuel cells”, as well as perfecting the extraction of hydrogen from water and “CO2 sequestration”. As far as internal innovation is concerned, on the other hand, we are working towards the digitalization of processes, but also consistently improving the “customer experience” and health and safety in the workplace.
“For the manufacturing part, thanks to Staufen Consulting, we are pursuing “Lean Transformation” measures in all of our manufacturing sites which, thanks to a gradual, but radical, change in approach, are aimed at achieving improved results and productivity. ”
How has the pandemic affected the company?
The emergence of COVID-19 has not led to any losses for us. On the contrary, we have continued to work at the same rate. At this time, we have learned some valuable lessons: we have used “smart working”, held remote meetings, sometimes with other international teams, demonstrating that we can redesign even critical and important processes remotely, as we have often done with our partners at Staufen. We have also learned how to be an increasingly united and cohesive team, with a group of managers who often meet online to discuss how to proceed, without the need to necessarily be on site. Years ago, before COVID, this would have been difficult to imagine.
What professional successes are you most proud of?
I started in Research and Development, while I was involved in Operations for the last two years. In my former role, I contributed to the creation of a multinational research organization capable of producing two/three new products per year. In the Operations division, a nice climate of trust was created, which was satisfying. Also, the Hoshin Kanri process that we developed with Staufen is going very well, in spite of the complexity of applying a new method of strategic planning in all plants. We have succeeded in creating a professional community that is working well, demonstrating flexibility and receptiveness, in order to aim for excellence.