Science and Engineering Stories blog with CERN Alumnus Simone Callegari
Feb 13, 2021
Science and Engineering Stories with Simone Callegari
“Business and society have been pitted against each other for too long, every firm should look at decisions and opportunities through the lens of shared value”. Michael Porter.
Wonder generated by scientific and engineering mega-project discoveries drives human curiosity towards excitement, but how does this excitement become useful for humanity? What can firms learn from those scientific mega-projects? Over the course of the coming weeks, I will publish a short series of blog posts, where I will talk about the value of scientific communities in science, and how creativity in those communities has the potential to generate the future of science for our society. The first episode is "What Makes Scientific Mega-Projects Successful?"
These episodes are my opinions and I welcome any comments or discussions in the comments, alternatively, please free to reach out to me on alumni.cern: https://alumni.cern/users/2225991
Science & Engineering Stories: What Makes Scientific Mega-Projects Successful?
I remember, about 2 years ago I was a novice engineer at CERN, where I participated in my first vacuum resealing operation at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). I remember clearly how motivated I was, waking up early that morning, putting on those big boots, taking a helmet with a torch and going down in the elevator to the underground facilities where the 27 km machine is waiting for a new day. From that experience onwards, science and engineering projects helped me to grow personally and professionally towards the person I am today, keeping alive the spark of excitement that I hope you will conserve after reading this article.
One can state with confidence that the LHC is one of the most powerful machines ever built. CERN has earned its spot among the most successful scientific mega-projects in mankind’s known history. CERN’s scientific global collaboration was founded in 1953, after the second world war, as a symbol for international collaboration and cooperation. Starting from the 12 founding states located in Europe, CERN scientific collaboration has been continuously growing over the years, up to reaching a truly global dimension.
There are not many international research projects like CERN. Another project which is gaining more and more international attention is ITER. ITER stands for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. For people who are not familiar with ITER’s giant fusion reactor: it is an international engineering collaboration of 35 nations from all over the globe who are working together on an experimental machine to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear fusion. A successful experiment would pave the way to eliminating nuclear waste and CO2 dumps in the atmosphere while generating energy. In other words, theITER experimental reactor would open the door to generating green energy on a large scale. However, it will be only a proof of concept and not yet the prototype of an operating fusion plant. The reactor will be fully operational in about 10 years. Both ITER and LHC are examples of ambitious machines that have never been built before "designed to abruptly change the structure of society" as of the mega-project definition.The LHC's scope has included: fundamental physics, peace after the second world war and international collaboration whereas ITER can be seen as the next step revealing the path towards clean energy on a gigantic scale. Behind every mega project stands a huge multidisciplinary team consisting of engineers, scientists, facility and administrative personnel coordinated by project managers.
Despite the best intentions, often, many mega-projects do not deliver according to their budget and schedule, as recently happened for ITER. Taking European mega-projects as an example, the ones that are delivered over budget or on time is as high as 66%. However, this is not a self-explanatory statistic: many European mega-projects that undergo failure are nuclear mega-projects. Whereas renewable energy projects are often delivered according to time and budget requirements. Hence every project is unique and there is verified difficulty for project managers to deal with the challenges of each specific project and the requirements. This raises these questions:
How can project managers succeed in managing projects like these?
When there is no proof of records, how do you learn and apply knowledge from other projects to deliver the projects according to time and budget requirements?
Recently I read an article by Lucio Rossi, the former project leader of HL-LHC project, regarding the upcoming upgrade of LHC. In this article, Lucio Rossi mentions the collaboration between ITER and CERN which has been ongoing for many years, but what is this collaboration about? Now that I recently received my education in project management along with my MBA, I am able to make a more educated and stronger opinion. After going through multiple readings and educational videos about ITER and CERN, I can conclude that this collaboration has important lessons that can be drawn from the examples regarding project management.
I took a deep dive into the publicly available LHC material and found relevant reports regarding stakeholders and risk management. These documents show there were very important risk-related implementations in LHC after the incident in 2008. LHC operations, in fact, started on the 10th September 2008 and on the 19th of September a failure of a welding joint caused an internal explosion and the facility was shut-down up to the 20th November 2009, about a year later. After the occurrence of this incident, the project managers decided to introduce an updated risk management strategy and machine protection system. The machine protection system is a set of systems for which the machine prevents being operated in risky conditions.
Another interesting insight I came across is thestakeholder management policy which was also implemented following the incident in 2008. CERN was able to manage its relationships with stakeholders very effectively, giving them updated feedback thanks to the implementation of a novel software tool for project management. This new tool was allowing mainly the tracking of all operations and materials along the project execution phase, allowing a better exchange of information between the different units. Hence, I am able to draw the following conclusions:
1) The necessity of a reliable machine protection system: Whenever there is a risky situation for the machine or the personnel, the machine has to be able to counteract. LHC and ITER machines store a huge quantity of energy in a very small space. Hence, is vital that machine protection systems are always reliable. You can imagine that the energy produced by the LHC beam is able to melt, instantaneously, 1900 kg of Copper and is contained in a beam of the cross-section of a human hair. Machine protection systems prevent any faulty situation to propagate and generate serious problems.
2) Project Management software is fundamental for stakeholders’ management: Probably the real success of LHC stays really in its ability of CERNs management to continuously involve relevant stakeholders making the collaboration stronger and stronger. We can remind ourselves that CERN started as a collaboration of 12 founding states in 1953 and now is a collaboration of 23 Member States and Associate and Non Member-States.
This demonstrates that every project can learn from already existing projects, no matter how unique it is. Essentially, every project should learn from other projects because each project is nothing more than a human experience. As humans, we are able always learn from others' experiences even if they are not ours. Most often the mistakes we make are because we did not learn sufficiently from the experience of the others as maybe we thought our experience is "too unique" to be replicable. I recently read a book, the title of which is was "Only Amazement Knows" meaning that only the sentiment of wonder is the proper way to capture an experience in all its factors. Probably, the truth is that every experience is not replicable, hence we should not stop looking to what Science and Engineering allow us to experience with a gaze full of wonder, humbleness and excitement.