He developed the concept of unit operations in a time when different industries still invented everything separately and promoted industrial research when science and manufacturing barely had any connections. This month's Hero of Chemical Engineering, Arthur D. Little, is widely known for the consultant firm he founded in 1909, one of the leading management consulting firms in the world. But he was also a true pioneer of chemical engineering and the driving force behind long-term industrial research.
Born in December of 1863 in Boston, Little already experimented by himself in the school laboratory and studied chemistry at MIT from 1881 until 1884. He was a gifted student and talented researcher, as well as a first-rate communicator (he founded the MIT campus magazine The Tech). Unfortunately he had to abandon his studies in his third year without graduating, because his family was no longer able to support him financially and so he took a job offer from the Richmond Paper Company. Quickly promoted, he was put in charge of the first sulphite paper mill in the US – the Rhode Island paper mill – and recognised its flawed design. He promptly rectified and improved it, what earned him his first patent and his first stripes as an expert in paper processing technology.
In 1886 he founded his first consulting firm together with Roger Griffin, a former college from Richmond Paper. They wrote together The Chemistry of Paper-Making - the book that quickly became (and remained for many years) the bible for paper producers. Following Griffin's death in a laboratory accident in 1893, Little founded a company that, among other things, developed the first motion film based on cellulose nitrate – later marketed by Kodak as a safety film, because it was not as flammable as the standard films of the time.
Little realised very early in his career that the industry did not make good use of the opportunities modern research offered. Even big companies rarely had research departments and laboratory discoveries rarely translated into industrial production. After another joint consulting ended in 1905, when his partner William Walker was appointed head of the new research laboratory of applied chemistry at MIT, Little continued alone, and the consultancy business slowly grew. His arguments for boosting efficiency were both financial and ecological: “Every waste that is prevented, or turned to profit, every problem solved, and every more effective process which is developed makes for better living in the material sense and for cleaner and more wholesome living in the higher sense.” he said at the opening of MIT’s applied chemistry laboratories in 1909.
In 1909 he renamed his firm to Arthur D. Little, Inc. By then it consisted of several departments with specialists covering fuel engineering, forest products, textiles, fermentation and plenty more, but Little’s first real breakthrough came in 1911, when he was tasked by General Motors to set up and staff the company’s first-ever centralised research department. This success set of a long chain of scientific research and process design projects in a several industries, ranging from smoke filters to producing alcohol from wood waste. By 1918 the company occupied its own building in Memorial Drive, Cambridge, and had completed more than 16,000 separate investigations. What had begun as a simple analytical laboratory had progressed into a serious industrial research operation, where different specialists in different departments would work together to fully exploit every promising breakthrough by fundamental research and thorough investigation of all the potential industrial applications for their economy and practicality.
To chemical engineers, Arthur D. Little is mostly known for developing the concept of unit operations, he was the first to use it to define the role of chemical engineering and as a way of explaining industrial chemical processes. By defining this limited number of fundamental steps used in processes across very different industries, it became apparent just how much one industry can learn from the improvements another has achieved. This reduced the complexity of the field of chemical engineering and gives ChemEngs today the ability to work across a very wide range of tasks.
By then ADL had built a grand reputation. In 1908, he was one of six founding members of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. He was the President of the American Chemical Society from 1912 until 1914 and the driving force behind the creation of the chemical engineering practice school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1920. During his entire career, Little promoted scientific innovation as only way to guarantee long-term growth. He said: “To those with vision, science is bringing countless new opportunities for constructive and profitable effort, while it is likely to take whatever they may have from those who will not see.”
Little also concluded that bankers and politicians would benefit from having a rather deeper understanding of science and scientific advances, given the changes science can bring and the impact money and politics have on scientific advancement. “While every chemist will admit he needs a banker, the fact that every banker needs a chemist is not yet recognised in financial circles.” For this quote alone we would have named him a Hero of Chemical Engineering!
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21 December 2015