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Henk Vasmel - connecting internal and external knowledge
Henk Vasmel, Vice President for Research and Development, Shell Global Solutions, believes that technology has never been as important for Shell as it is now. He explains how Shell are using new technological solutions that are both safe and cost effective to find difficult-to-reach hydrocarbons.
An interest in research
Henk studied physics and obtained his doctorate in research into photosynthesis, but rather than continuing down a R&D route, when he first joined Shell it was industrial research that captured his imagination. “The scaling up of molecular research to applications really appealed to me,” he says.
“The great thing about Shell is that it invests in its people and gives careers new turns,” he continues, stating a previous position as a planner in Pernis, where he was responsible for deciding whether or not to buy oil, and a position in Norway, where he was involved in the closing of a refinery. The latter experience was one that he says formed him as a people manager.
“I like to have a personal connection with my staff, to understand what drives and motivates them. I’m informal and I try to be accessible,” he says. “I hope that it comes across, as I find it important to know what people are up to”.
Today, Henk is responsible for a team of approximately 120 employees. Divided between Rijswijk, Houston, Bangalore and Norway, the team works on new technologies in the fields of drilling techniques and the exploration and production of oil and gas at locations that are difficult to reach. “Deepwater production plays an important role in Shell’s growth ambitions,” he says. “It involves better and smarter oil or gas exploration, working more safely and cost effectively.”
The great thing about Shell is that it invests in its people and gives careers new turns
One thing that he points out the industry is investigating is whether it is possible to carry out processing under water on the seabed itself without a platform. “It really demands a rethink,” he admits. “In Norway, in particular, we have already come far with this idea. The Ormen Lange gas field is situated 120 km off the coast at a depth of approximately 900 metres. Normally, we would have a platform there, but now the pumps are standing on the seabed and a pipeline leads to the coast.
“At the moment we are testing new compressors together with Shell Technology Norway. We will need them later, once the pressure drops in the field. They are very complex tests that are conducted in a kind of Olympic-sized swimming pool.”
Water management is becoming increasingly important for Shell, something that Henk’s team in Bangalore is looking at. “It is important to understand the essential position of water in the chain of energy, food and water,” he says. “That is what we are charting, and that requires new knowledge. My role is to make a connection between internal and external knowledge, by establishing contacts with universities, companies and organisations.”
“To avoid wasting time and money, you want to know as early as possible if a new technology is promising or not. At the same time, you don’t want to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater,’” as Henk describes it. “That is the greatest challenge facing an R&D organisation.
We are now much more decisive than we used to be when it comes to calling a halt in time,” he admits. “For instance, Game Changer was set up for this purpose. Each idea is given a quick review and if it seems worth it, we develop it further. It’s important to continue involving new people and to ask questions.”
Long term vision
In 1996, Henk was working in Pernis where he saw the arrival of the last wagon of oil from Schoonebeek. “The fact that Schoonebeek is now operational again demonstrates the power of technology,” he says. But, as he points out, it is important to use technology intelligently, and not purely because it exists. It is therefore important to for him to have a vision of where the business is going.
“What distinguishes us from state oil companies in particular is technology in the fields of exploration and production,” he says. “What we do makes the difference between success and failure. Naturally, it has to fit the business case, but the technology must be available first.” The recurring element in his career is ensuring that technology contributes to the company’s results. “The technology itself is a motivating factor.”