Phil Kinnane, vice president of sales at COMSOL, joined our COVID-19 Interview Series to discuss the growing role of modeling and simulation tools in the fight against corrosion.
COMSOL offers software that can help predict coating lifespan and many other corrosion problems for many end users, and Kinnane explains how that business has fared in the era of a pandemic.
With the virus making some field maintenance visits less viable, could that make corrosion modeling even more important in the months ahead? Kinnane addressed that subject and much more in a recent podcast. Tune in:
[This podcast was recorded on June 30, 2020.]
Ben DuBose: Phil, welcome to the show. How are you?
Phil Kinnane: I’m well, thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
BD: No problem. I’m glad to get your insight on our ongoing COVID-19 series here at NACE because a lot of the companies that we talk to, be it manufacturers, contractors, they look at it from a strictly day-to-day perspective: what’s going on out in the field. With you guys, obviously you’re more software based. So for anyone who is not aware, I think a good place to start for our audience would be by letting you let a little bit about yourself, your role, and what your company does as it pertains to corrosion mitigation.
PK: I run the sales department here. We’re out of the East Coast, although the company itself is a Swedish company. It runs to around 550 employees throughout the world, with a few distributors as well in some countries. We make a software that models the physical behavior or the physical properties and so forth that would be associated with corrosion. In particular, corrosion that’s affected or that occurs because of electrochemical processes.
In one way, you could talk about software as a solver of mathematics. In another way, you could look at our software as a design software, that if you meld the two, what we do is we simulate possible designs or possible future processes or existing processes so that you understand them. Within corrosion, that could be understanding what it is that’s causing the corrosion or the most amount of corrosion. Let’s say it’s a pipe going through the ground and we need to ascertain where the corrosion is most likely to occur because of some type of electrochemical process.
Alternatively, as you noted, we also are associated with using the mathematics associated with electrochemistry and transport processes so that our users can simulate a situation where they would like to know where and how to put out some sort of corrosion mitigation processes, such as sacrificial anodes or induced current cathodic protection and so forth. That’s where we’re at.
BD: One of the interesting angles from our perspective at NACE, this series that we’ve been doing since the end of March looking at COVID-19, we’ve talked a lot with manufacturers, with contractors, with service providers. One of the recurring themes is that, for a lot of companies it’s been difficult to send workers physically out in the field. Not necessarily because they can’t — because a lot of these businesses are essential — but it’s a matter of travel and how the logistics are so constrained by what’s been going on.
I know you have a more detailed perspective than I do, but from a distance, I would guess that modeling becomes even more important, because if you’re able to successfully model then you’re able to better plan when you’re going to need workers out in the field. I guess my question is, number one: Is that assessment correct? Secondly, if it is, what are you hearing from your clients? Is there any greater interest in modeling as a result of the conditions we’ve been in for the last quarter of the year and probably will be for the foreseeable future?
PK: I think your assessment is more or less on point there. When you talk about the people going out onto the field and the problem set because of travel, we also have a very large amount of our customers who would work in laboratories or in buildings associated with design and the like, and they of course can’t go to those places and mix with other people in the way that they used to. So they’ve been kept from doing maybe large parts of their job.
For the people that are possibly going out into the field with respect to corrosion, they can’t do that. So there’s a bit of a hole there that they need to fill to keep themselves busy until they are allowed to travel again or allowed to go to work and do experiments and so forth in the labs. Modeling has filled that hole quite extensively. It’s something that you always want to get to because you always want to understand a process better. It’s also something you can use to put up hypotheses and so forth for what could be possible. For example, let’s see if I can get together a bunch of ICCP [induced current cathodic protection] designs and have them ready so that when I am allowed to travel again, then it’s just a matter of going out there and running those prototypes or whatever it is that is done out there on the field according to a whole bunch of simulations that I’ve spent the past couple months performing.
For us, there has been a rather significant and very noticeable increase in the amount of modeling and participation with our events associated with modeling and simulation. When we used to run webinars and get 100 people, now we run webinars and get 300 people. When we used to send out the evaluation copies of our software on a monthly basis — I’ll just pluck a number out of the air, like 100 — once again it’s 300. So there is a lot of people sitting at home thinking about the future, trying to keep themselves busy, and COMSOL fortunately has the ability to provide that activity.
BD: That makes a lot of sense. What I worry about — the other side of the equation — is that you have these companies that might have a renewed interest, as you were just explaining. But the flip side is that everyone is under pressure in 2020 to minimize expenses and to cut costs. I’m just curious, from a business perspective, how you all at COMSOL have been able to adjust to that. Is it a matter of selling potential clients on the idea that, with modeling, there’s all sorts of long-term savings that you can bring into the mix?
Just talk, if you could, about what the dynamic is with regards to: you have this renewed interest from a lot of people, especially within corrosion control and really any industry that prevent putting workers out into the field. But the flip side, they’re under pressure obviously to minimize costs however they can. What is that balance like from your perspective?
PK: We haven’t pitched our software as a tool that will save you costs so much in this situation. At the moment, everyone — me included — think it’s going to be rather short-term, this crisis. I think it’s more pitching our software as to what it’s going to look like after the worst of it is over, when we’re all going to have to get back to doing what we were doing before but we’re going to have to find more alternative and novel ways in order to do it. Modeling and simulation is a very good tool to use for that aspect, so that if you are going to be designing something differently or in a different way or using different processes, or if you — in some ways, I suppose part of your future could be that you are traveling a lot less compared to what you were doing before — then modeling, of course, is a way in which you can predict rather than have to measure physically what is happening out there in the middle or whatever it is — the ocean, for example, if we’re talking about some type of oil rig.
Short-term, modeling and our software has always been more of an investment tool rather than a short-term type of commodity, so that people are thinking ahead, one year, sometimes two years it could take before a sale is made. Often our software is purchased as part of a project. So we see that maybe we are coming in projects that have been cut down in size or cut down in the amount of expenditure that’s being allowed to be placed onto the project. In some ways, we have noticed that there is some sort of economic activity towards saving. But fortunately for us, we’ve been able to be one of the solutions to this project.
BD: When you look at specific industries that are under pressure at the moment, I know you all work within the fields of protective coatings. You look at ability to predict coating lifespan. You do things within corrosion control. All of these are fields where your modeling, your simulation software is particularly applicable.
With regards to corrosion control, protective coatings, are there any themes with those industries in particular that you’ve heard over the last three months as far as how they’re faring? Are those industries willing to adopt what you were just referring to, as the long-term mindset, not so much about the next 12 months, but where we go once the pandemic is over? I know you talk to clients. I know you are involved in market research. If you could, just elaborate on the corrosion control to protective coatings fields in particular. Anything you’ve heard from those market segments?
PK: Well, because it’s so short-term and often funding has been appropriated quite a long ways in — looking at the future — there is quite a lot of funds sloshing around (sloshing, maybe that’s a bit of a bad word). But there is a lot of funds that are available, I would say, that have not been dragged back or dragged in. Or, in some cases, the management has been happy to have those funds continue to be spent with respect to all types of research and development, not only modeling and simulation. I think it differs between industries, and I think it differs between customers within those industries. Some of them have taken the approach of putting a stop on all types of purchasing. Some of them maybe learned from previous mistakes.
I was at this company during dot.com crisis, and research and development was the first thing to do in many companies. Then when everything got better, everyone had to build up their research and design again, which could take two or three years. They learned from that, and I think some of them are accepting that if they are going to survive this crisis and if they are going to survive the medium to far future, then they are going to still have to invest and possibly invest smarter rather than in quantity. But as said, there are some companies that have taken a blanket approach to just cut all spending, and we have noticed that. But I was expecting a lot more of that than has actually happened. I think we’re looking a lot stronger than what quite a lot of people are fearing.
BD: I think that’s pretty good to hear. I’m curious, has there been a particular uptick within the last month or do? Anecdotally, from hosting these podcasts and talking to people within my capacity at NACE, it felt like, not just within corrosion but the overall world, there was a bit of a panic when this set on in the developed world in March. But now that most places are out of lockdown — and of course I know that there’s going to be some back and forth until there’s a vaccine — but it really feels like a lot of industries, a lot of companies are adapting to basically a new normal and trying to figure out what the best path forward is.
And we’re not really in that spot that we were in in March when, for so many, there was — not just from a personal perspective but a business perspective — this need, this desire to pull back at all costs. I feel like, while the crisis is not gone at this point, people have an idea of what they need to do, especially from a business perspective, to move forward. Is that something you’re seeing? Are things better now, as we’re talking in the middle of summer, than they were in late spring? Are companies adjusting better than they were three months ago? Is that a fair characterization?
PK: I think so. It’s not a huge strong feeling or trend that I am feeling because, once again, we are a more long-term type of investment tool that people would invest in. But I think our advantage in some ways is that the people that use our software often can do it from anywhere. So I would say that, almost exclusively, there’s certainly a large, large majority of the people who use our software are still sitting at home. But that’s fine, because all they need to do is connect themselves to a relatively good and heavy, decent hardware. In other words, computational power, which could be back at their old place of work, and then they can certainly model and simulate.
The people that unfortunately have to go into the manufacturing halls or onto the field are not necessarily the people who are modeling so much. Though they can certainly be furnished with a lot better data and a lot better information so that they can spend their time, when they actually have to be outside of their own homes, in a far more efficient way. I think there’s a lot of, in general, most of the American industries that we are associated with have actually thought quite a lot about this. Certainly I never felt any significant amounts of panic coming from any of them, and this even included some of them where you would expect that panic, such as the aerospace and automotive and oil industries. It’s been relatively calm, and I think it’s relatively calm because they feel confident in themselves that they can get through this.
BD: We’re finishing up here with Phil Kinnane, vice president of sales at COMSOL. Phil, as we wrap up, any closing thoughts, outlook, words of advice for the future? For anyone that’s listening to this podcast that might have interest, be it in your solutions or anywhere else — let’s talk generally about the idea of increased modeling, increased simulation capacity. What would you tell someone that’s listening to this podcast that might have some curiosity in delving deeper into the modeling sphere than what they have done to this point? Why is this a good time for them to get involved? What are some of the considerations that they should be thinking about if they want to learn more from you guys or any other provider in the field?
PK: That’s a big question. What I feel, and what our company COMSOL is really putting a lot of effort into, is to bring simulation to a lot larger amount of people, so that engineers and design people who have never really had an education or never really were that involved in simulation, modeling, math, physics, and so forth when they received their education, should still be able to do simulations. So we’ve been working with our main software as being a platform for building small, mini-softwares, if you like, that can do certain applications specific to a certain company or certain process or a certain device or a certain design. So that some engineers, such as those that go out onto the field can actually sit there or stand there and run their own simulations by virtue of communicating with some server through a tablet, for example, or a mobile phone and yet still do very sophisticated simulation and can adjust their work accordingly, although they may be 1,000 miles from the head office.
I think that we need to, going forward I think you need to make people in general less specialized and more capable of being able to do many of the different facets of the job and understand more of what it is that the company or organization that you work for actually does, and integrate with other departments, other people, other applications, and so forth a lot better. Simulation is a perfect tool for that type of thing.
BD: Phil, before you go, any ways that people can get in touch with you or the company? I’m guessing your website. But for anyone that wants to know more information from you guys, how can they get that?
PK: I think probably the website is the best way to do it. We have forms and so forth where you can type in your details and questions. I should point out that we have products that are specialized towards electrochemistry, corrosion but also, more in general, physics phenomena such as fluid dynamics, electromagnetics, and transport processes. So I think that you can find a huge amount of information by visiting www.comsol.com. From there you can go on to possibly attending a webinar or fixing a meeting or having a demonstration or trying out the software. It would all basically start from the website.
BD: That makes sense. Phil, thank you so much for the time and I look forward to catching up with you again in the future.
PK: Yes, thank you very much for having me. It’s been a real pleasure.
[closing remarks about changing the focus of podcasts away from COVID-19]
For more information, contact: COMSOL, www.comsol.com
Editor’s note: This was the final episode in our COVID-19 podcast series.