Small scale, big rewards
the promise of nanotech projects is high, so are the risks
BY MICHAEL APPLEBAUM
Nanotech is a tiny wonder with titanic project potential. Across sectors as diverse as energy, biomedicine and transportation, startups and established organizations alike are launching projects to develop new nanomaterials for use in everything from electric-vehicle batteries to life-saving medical implants. Already, clothing and apparel companies make nanotech shirts and pants that resist odor, water and dirt. Nissan's first self-cleaning car prototype uses a nanotech-based protective paint coating that deflects dirt and mud. And 3M recently introduced a flexible nanotech solar panel that rolls out like a sheet of plastic but still has protective properties that rival those of glass.
The potential of nanotech to power next-gen products is clear—but the field's high innovation quotient also delivers major risks. While working to manipulate atoms and molecules a million times smaller than the length of an ant, project managers must navigate high-risk terrain from start to finish. Schedules and budgets can spiral out of control when test results fall short. And a lack of standardized safety guidelines and dearth of experienced, knowledgeable talent also pose project threats.
Yet organizations are undeterred. Each year, corporations and governments invest billions of dollars in nanotech R&D, including US$18.1 billion in 2014, the most recent year with available data. With big money at play, benefit expectations are sky-high—and the pressure is on project managers to flex their skills to deliver ROI and mitigate risks.
“The project manager has to dive into many different disciplines on a nanotech project. He [or she] can't just be sitting in the helicopter,” says Romano Hoofman, PhD, PMP, R&D program manager, NXP Semiconductors in Leuven, Belgium.
Investment in nanotechnology R&D by corporations and governments in 2014
Early in a nanotech project's life cycle, project managers can provide a valuable reality check. By honing the business case and pushing for a more detailed plan, they can prevent internal R&D teams from overselling a project's potential and creating unrealistic expectations among stakeholders and sponsors.
A cost/benefit analysis is a good first step, says Paul Kozak, PMP, a consultant on nanotech projects based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Factors such as special raw materials, complex processing methods or long development cycles can drive up the cost. For example, although a nano-coating might significantly improve the durability of a battery, it also can drive up manufacturing costs by 30 percent or higher, he says. For many organizations, that's an unacceptable trade-off unless it helps to create a product that is in demand and will increase sales or profit margins enough to justify it.
PHOTO BY MATTIA BALSAMINI
“It is the nature of nanotech projects: The market can outpace you on innovation.”
—Antonio Dalvit, PMP, GE Healthcare, Padova, Italy
“You have to be practical about how long it will take to get a commercial solution,” says Mr. Kozak. “And you generally don't want to pick a nano-project that has cost as its primary driver.”
With limited historical data and technical information, building the business case takes extra work. Outside experts can help fill in the knowledge gaps, says José Maria Fernandes Marlet, PMP, product development engineer, Embraer, São Paulo, Brazil. For instance, Mr. Marlet interviews experts at research and academic institutions to determine the strength and sustainability of the manufacturing processes, as well as the technology readiness level of the product development chains involved.
“The project manager has to dive into many different disciplines on a nanotech project. He [or she] can't just be sitting in the helicopter.”
—Romano Hoofman, PhD, PMP, NXP Semiconductors, Leuven, Belgium
“This process helps the project manager determine whether the desired deliverables requested by the stakeholders are reasonable and feasible,” he says. If feedback from experts does not support those desired endpoints, the project manager might need to re-scope the project.
“If the business case is robust and reasonable but the targeted technology has a low readiness level, I will recommend to stakeholders and sponsors that we change the nature of the project in order to be more strategic than tactical,” Mr. Marlet says. “One way to do this is to break the original idea into a number of smaller projects intended to be fast and low-cost. In this way, we can obtain more and more reliable data—that increases the likelihood of project success, because the requirements of the project can be better established.”
UP AGAINST THE CLOCK
Time isn't always on nanotech projects’ side. Market conditions can change significantly mid-project or before a new product hits the market. That's because most nanotech projects require lengthy development times of up to a year or more—particularly when they involve complicated applications (such as medical implants) made of materials and coatings that must be biocompatible, for example. Building working prototypes frequently stretches schedules.
“It is the nature of nanotech projects: The market can outpace you on innovation,” says Antonio Dalvit, PMP, IT project manager, PMI Global Executive Council member GE Healthcare, Padova, Italy.
To combat the risk of obsolescence, project managers should set tighter milestones and established sub-goals for milestones, Mr. Kozak says. “If testing cycles are long, the project needs a special accelerated testing approach to keep the evaluation loops tighter,” he says. “It might take up to a year or more to customize and validate the test.”
The Search for Nano Talent
Although the field of nanotech emerged in the 1980s, it's still cutting-edge. That means it's relatively new to most private-sector organizations, and specialized talent to staff projects can be scarce. To help close the knowledge gap, project leaders first should identify people at their organization who are ripe for being coached to join the project team, and, only in a next step, look to academic and research institutions as needed to identify others to bring on board, says Romano Hoofman, PhD, PMP, R&D program manager, NXP Semiconductors, Leuven, Belgium.
“Typically, it takes much longer for new project members to get on track with nanotechnology than for other projects,” says Mr. Hoofman.
The project manager can overcome this problem by coaching the new team members, he says. For starters, project managers need to train team members to translate different technical language that specialists use, he says. For example, a computer engineer likely will use different terms than a biologist.
“Try to challenge them on their daily work and challenge their assumptions,” he says. “The project manager needs to spend lots of time with sub-teams to understand and translate developments in a complex interdisciplinary context.”
Mr. Dalvit typically divides a nanotech project into phases separated by gates, with clearly defined goals for each. For instance, at a previous organization, he conducted a project for an Italian manufacturer that developed prototypes for fingerprint-resistant appliances and kitchen cabinets. During the test phase, the team discovered the nano-coatings worked well on steel but created an uneven surface and unnatural appearance on wood. Additional work fixed the problem and allowed the team to show the sponsor how much the end user would pay for the product.
Under the Microscope
Nanotech project teams are reinventing the familiar to build a more high-tech future.
A NOSE FOR DANGER
Nanotech startup Tracense has invested more than US$10 million in a device that can help sniff out explosives, drugs and even large amounts of money. The “nano-nose” relies on nanosensors to detect threats and will be marketed commercially, the Israeli company says, though the project has exceeded its original 2015 deadline.
NO NEED FOR THE GRID
Japan's Shimizu Corp. invested US$25 million to create a zero-energy nanotech building that opened in October 2015 in Albany, New York, USA. The joint venture with SUNY Polytechnic Institute uses nano-based solar panels and fuel cells to produce as much energy as the US$191 million building consumes each year. Shimizu hopes to apply the same technology toward floating cities someday.
NEW WAY OF SEEING THINGS
Google has patented a smart contact lens that uses nanotech. The solar-powered lens will communicate with computers and collect biological data about the wearer, such as glucose levels from tears for those who have diabetes. Google spent 18 months developing a testable prototype; the product is scheduled to hit the market by 2019.
Proceed With Caution
Nanotech projects can pose safety risks to team members. Part of the problem is that so much remains unknown about potential health effects. For instance, nanoparticles remain in the air for long periods of time and easily can be inhaled. Yet there's relatively little data about the toxic threat of short- or long-term exposure—so it's unclear whether such exposure could be deadly or merely a nuisance. Safety guidelines vary by country and depend on the type of nanomaterial.
The standards needed to guide project lab teams through the proper handling and disposal of nanomaterials are starting to emerge, says Dr. Gordon Armstrong, scientific support officer for the Materials and Surface Science Institute at the University of Limerick in Limerick, Ireland.
“There aren't really globally centralized safety resources for nanomaterials,” he says. Although in Europe, “there seems to be an emerging consensus between EU and national standards, and formal guidance for best practice in the use of nanomaterials.”
Following common-sense practices will help, such as limiting exposure by wearing protective gear and implementing appropriate engineering controls (e.g., using a fume hood for ventilation). But project managers also must warn sponsors and team members that safety risks—whether known or unknown—are possible. Caveat emptor.
“My approach is to give the customer a clear vision of the risks and opportunities at each gate. That helps the customer understand the status of the project,” he says. “If we had followed [a more traditional] waterfall approach, we would have spent a lot more time and money.”
“If the business case is robust and reasonable but the targeted technology has a low readiness level, I will recommend to stakeholders and sponsors that we change the nature of the project.”
—José Maria Fernandes Marlet, PMP, Embraer, São Paulo, Brazil
TO KILL OR NOT TO KILL
Sometimes a troubled nano-project can't make it to the finish line, however. When certain problems prove unfixable, at least within budget and on a workable time frame, project practitioners must make the difficult recommendation to pull the plug.
When Mr. Hoofman was the project coordinator of a project to create a nanotech-based biosensor that could quickly detect bacteria and pathogens in a person's blood, unforeseen reactions in the biosensor device caused extensive project delays. That led him to recommend killing the project—but the sponsor disagreed.
“He was still confident this could be a breakthrough for his company, so he pushed it through. If it were up to me, I would have pulled the plug at that point because we had used up so many resources,” Mr. Hoofman says.
They reached a compromise to re-scope the project. Five months of additional unsuccessful testing did persuade the sponsor to shut down the project.
“He saw all of the roadblocks that remained and decided it was time to kill it,” says Mr. Hoofman. “I understood his initial position. You need to take more risk for these types of projects because there's a much higher potential reward.”
PHOTO BY MATTIA BALSAMINI
Sometimes emphasizing the inherently risky nature of a nanotech project throughout its life cycle—not only at the outset—can keep it alive. Before he worked for GE, Mr. Dalvit was working on a project to develop a prototype for a nano-coated shoe-sole mold when the sponsor made it clear he wanted to kill the project. The goal was to reduce the amount of lubricant and time needed to separate the polymer-based sole from the mold and improve the overall wear of the product. “The results were a disaster,” he says. “We weren't able to separate the polymer from the mold and ended up having to use sandblasting techniques to clean the mold.”
“My approach is to give the customer a clear vision of the risks and opportunities at each gate. That helps the customer understand the status of the project.”
—Antonio Dalvit, PMP
The sponsors had had enough, but Mr. Dalvit was able to keep the project alive by reminding them that the business case laid out the high probability of risks and the need to make changes along the way.
“I reminded him that failure at the prototype phase was discussed before we started the project,” he says. “We spent about a month in discussions while we were waiting for the cleaning of the mold and data analysis.”
Six months later, his team was able to produce an alternative prototype that met the project's original goals, at a reduced manufacturing cost.
“We had a lot of meetings and phone calls—twice a week or more,” he says. “Since there had been a clear communication about risks, I had a clear case that supported the decision to go on with the project.” PM
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