What makes a good adhesive? “I think it’s not only about performance; it’s really about usability and the customer application impact it can have. When you look at [adhesives] in a lab, something that adheres strongly is a clear need. But how it’s dispensed, how it fits the application and what problem it solves at our customer defines a good adhesive,” says Henkel’s Nigel Fay, global head of innovation & engineering in Henkel’s Industrial Adhesives division.
That multidisciplinary answer, taking in R&D, marketing and engineering typifies Fay, whose career at the world’s largest manufacturer of adhesives has seen him bounce around various roles. The Irish national, who holds a PhD in physical chemistry, started work at its Tallaght, Dublin operations, initially as an acrylate team leader with a few technicians. After taking a three-year secondment in marketing at the company’s Dusseldorf HQ, he returned to be an innovation portfolio manager, and then rose through the ranks, adding first applications engineering and then director-level responsibilities to his role.
“I have the coolest job in Henkel,” Fay quips. “The reason why I’m still here 15 years later is that I’ve had opportunities to really try different things, and I think that’s something that Henkel does very well. For people who want to try something, there will be support in place to put you on the direction to succeed. Through Henkel I’ve done an MSc in international business management and a number of Harvard executive courses. And Henkel has taken some gambles, in engineering and marketing. I’ve travelled the world twice over.”
Having more than one string to your bow is a real plus at the company, he affirms. For example, when selecting applications engineers, a vital customer-facing role that requires both technical expertise and also commercial good sense, it chooses very carefully. “We look externally but we do move people – just like I was moved from a chemical role into engineering. It’s a good career trajectory. We really encourage our teams at an individual level to take some career changes and challenge themselves.”
TEAMS ALL ROUND
Today, he credits a collaborative working environment for helping him keep fingers in so many corporate pies. “It’s not me; it’s the top people around me. I have some excellent chemists and product development people; expert engineers and market development people, and then I interface every day with people that are the best in industry in marketing and sales. My role is a quarterback position [a team leader in American football] where I’m touching on a lot of different functions. Having an understanding of those different worlds is a massive help, because you have an appreciation of the problems. It really is a cross-functional approach.”
Last year, Fay was given director-level responsibility for the site’s production and R&D facility, Henkel Ireland Operations and Research. Although Loctite was invented in the USA in the 1950’s, Dublin was its European outpost when Henkel acquired the brand in 1997. So the facility, which employs 370, is unusual in having both R&D and production.
At pains to avoid the impression of silos, Fay stresses that the site is no microcosm of the company as a whole. He says: “I have a management team in Dublin, and each one of them reports to someone else; it is linked into the global machine through a matrix that links it to Heidelberg [Germany] and Pune [India] and the other sites.” Speaking of R&D centres, others include Dusseldorf – which is opening a €130m ‘Inspiration Center’ at the end of the year – Shanghai, which will have one too; Isogo, Japan; Pune, India; Irvine, California; Rocky Hill, Connecticut; Bridgewater, New Jersey.
All of these operations are just a portion of the Fortune 500 company’s business, which also covers some 180 production sites worldwide. The company, whose consumer brands include Persil and Schwarzkopf, had sales of €19 billion in 2020, and more than 50,000 staff in total. Employing half of them is the adhesives division, which is working to develop and apply 12 Level 1 product technologies – types of adhesive, see box, below – which Fay refers to as its ‘basket’ of offerings. The huge scale of the company’s product range helps it step around technical challenges in the field, he contends.
Another unusual feature of Henkel is how the company has deployed organisational structures to encourage innovation, manage technical competence and tie it to market demand. The adhesives business breaks down into four business areas: automotive & metals, packaging & consumer goods, electronics & industrials and craftsmen, construction & professional. They are further divided into 11 strategic business units for different markets, within which applications engineering expertise is deployed.
Where 11 business units meet the 12 product technologies (and their battalions of chemists and materials scientists) are to be found 80 Level 2 application-focused product technologies. For example, acrylates breaks down into cyanoacrylates, anaerobics, structural acrylates, light-curing acrylates and specialty acrylates. Each business unit is responsible for investing – paying for – the product development operations that develop its goods. Within each product technologies are researchers focusing on new materials, polymers, substrates and the chemical side to secure intellectual property; whereas the development side focuses more on the needs of different markets.
Fay reflects: “What we are trying to do is break down the interface between the innovation team and the business team, and really make innovation responsible for business, but also make business responsible for innovation. Bringing those together allows us to move faster and clarify areas that we need to be aggressive in.”
But Henkel takes it even a step farther: formal collaboration networks for R&D experts. Fay explains: “They talk about what they’re working on, what the value proposition might be or what the cool chemistry is, and then another business can take that up. When you’ve 2,500 chemists and engineers across adhesive technologies, we have to structure that. It’s not enough to say, ‘Let them work and catch up’.
“Part of our strength in our market, being the largest adhesive companies, is the portfolio of products. But that also means that it is very rare for even the most expert person to know all of our products and technologies. Pulling our experts together at a very early stage allows them visibility of our innovation pipelines, what we’re working on, the challenges, really fast-tracks our development processes.”
Although the network can quickly find competence to solve a particular problem, that does not mean it can pursue every avenue. He continues: “We also have to very quickly define what projects we work on. That innovation process, that front door, is critical.
We don’t try to do everything.”
Fay plays a big role in those decisions, and it falls to him to fret about the endless dilemma of balancing short- and long-term priorities. “I sit on the leadership team of the industrial adhesives business units. I connect to both the short- and longer-term needs of the business. A change in regulations, or a SVHCs [substances of very high concern – likely to be outlawed on health and safety grounds], means that we have to pivot, and have a clear short-term action on updating a formulation or some testing. However, we ringfence a certain proportion of the resource we use to do that. What we really try to do is have a majority of our innovation efforts on future-focused needs. Of course there are times when that ratio may shift depending on need. We really try to ensure we are not pulling real expertise into just short-term activity.”
Despite the different competences required to put together an adhesive solution – chemical, engineering, marketing, production – all have to work in harmony in the customer’s application. “More and more, it’s becoming nearly a continuum between where the typical traditional chemical polymer approach versus physical or engineering solution. In my role, for example, I have our innovation product development and our application engineeering, and they function together as one. That is for a reason. What we’re seeing more and more is not just bonding substrate A to substrate B, or looking at solid interfaces. It’s different resin matrices, it’s the total solution approach in terms of how it is dispensed, what their long-term stability looks under strenuous conditions. Putting that chemical and application engineering know-how together is extremely important in getting a full view and an appreciation of the stresses an adhesive needs to withstand.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Another factor is entering that mix from later this year: data. Early next year, Henkel is launching connected front-line dispensing and curing cells that will be able to spit out parameters such as pressure, temperature and flow rates to edge computing devices, and, via the cloud, to reach smartphones. A technician would be able to correct a temperature issue or flow online before a fault occurs, Fay predicts. And a second initiative launching later this year is to integrate sensing alongside adhesives to monitor for release of gases or liquids, again connecting them to the cloud.
“We’ve installed these solutions in our own production around the world. It’s exactly like any other chemical production setup; we have pipes and valves, flanges and pumps, and we show excellent performance. It’s exciting where that’s gone because we’re getting real feedback from our operations and supply chain colleagues about how the data should look, what we should be doing, how we make it understandable, accessible and simple.” A smart product for flanges is scheduled to launch late this year.
In this case, Henkel’s production sites are acting as guinea pigs, which is relatively unusual. But doing testing and development with trusted lead customers is not. That is part of the company’s culture of fast experimentation and fast failure, which helps drive speed to market.
Here is how a typical adhesive development project (an ADP) might work. Before a chemist starts doing research in a lab to find a solution to a problem, there will already be a clear scope, and clear business case. Marketing understanding and business case development is done in parallel with technical research, so if the lab work proves successful, the company will understand total accessible market (TAM), what are the lead customers interested. Those analyses are reviewed by gatekeepers; others check the lab work against performance, stability and, now, sustainability criteria. If it passes through those hurdles, it moves to a pilot plant for scale-up.
And then it has to be integrated into production. Balancing mass production with new products is another challenge. Fay says: “Most production volumes are those core products that are being shipped out to our customers every day, and that’s what drives our efficiency, our cost position and the global supply. But new product introduction is key to the success of Henkel. We’re not just a volume producer of adhesives; we’re a solutions provider. How we grow and maintain our business and differentiate is working with our markets and customers. That is a clear message to our production and operations teams, that we need to plan for new products coming to the floor. We do have flexibility and capacity that we can drive into our production sites. But communication is the key here.”
BOX: Henkel's dozen
Silicones & silane-modified polymers
Inorganic coatings & metal pretreatment