The Myth of the Better Mousetrap


The famous aphorism, attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson over 100 years ago, said that if you build a better mousetrap the world would beat a path to your door. With all due respect to Mr. Emerson, he was wrong, at least when it comes to how valves are purchased for the energy production industry.

To be fair to Mr. Emerson, the better mousetrap is an elusive concept. If it really is better, it is probably more expensive, or the delivery is longer. Or it could be a new concept that is not broadly recognized as beneficial. Therefore, even if a manufacturer builds a better mousetrap it does not ensure that the path is beaten to his door after all.

Why is this? Why does our industry resist adoption of innovative products? We should be doing the exact opposite. The petroleum production and process industries should be constantly on the lookout for safer and more reliable equipment. In our businesses we are dealing with high pressures and volatile substances. These days, we have fewer skilled technicians to maintain our equipment and to make sure it is operating properly. We have populations now living close to our facilities, that used to be surrounded by vacant land. We have environmental and safety concerns that did not exist a generation ago, yet we still seem to use the same selection criteria from the past.

Of course, we need to know that the company offering the innovative valve does what they say they do regarding proper design technique, manufacturing procedures, inspections, traceability, and testing. This is a given. But what also needs to be considered
is if the innovative product really provides more safety, durability and reliability.

Right now, when buying valves, the purchasing decisions are usually based on lowest price and shortest delivery. This is the exact opposite of how critical equipment should be selected. Our industry needs to buy valves based on features and benefits. For example, there may be a hundred trunnion mounted ball valve brands available in the market place. Nearly all are just copies of what has been around for decades. Even the literature produced by most valve manufacturers can be used interchangeably since they all do the same thing. Practically all the designs are functionally identical. Do any of us buy anything critically important in our personal lives by just using just Price and Delivery as the two criteria? I don’t think so.

Innovation has been stifled because of how valves are purchased. If even a modestly higher price can block a new design from entering into the market, then there will never be any real innovation adopted. The start-up costs to develop a new idea, are enormous. And until that manufacturer gets enough volume running thru the facility, the per unit costs of a valve are always going to be higher for the innovative company than the generic manufacturer. So why don’t established manufacturers come out with innovative products? They already have the facility up and running, and cash flow, so logic says that they would want to offer that better mousetrap. Not so fast. If they are already established with their generic brand, why would they risk making it obsolete with a competing product within their own business? The established manufacturer is the last place for innovation to take place.

Price by itself is no indication of value. The valve selection process needs to consider these items in addition to upfront cost:

  • Does the new design have characteristics that appear to solve a problem? Is it really safer, more durable, more reliable?
  • Does the new design pass accepted industry testing standards?
  • Does the manufacturing company have the financial strength to be in business long term to support this innovative product?
  • What are the expected lifetime ownership costs?
  • What are the real cost to replace a failed valve? You must include the down time, the man power adjustments, lifting and purging equipment, in addition to the cost of the replacement valve.

Also, the Operating Co. should have someone in the role of a Product Specialist to study their in-house specifications to see if they meet the challenges of today. The Specialist should work with the innovative companies and take advantage of their expertise. The specialist would monitor new products offered, and match the best design for the situation. The goal of the Product Specialist would be to choose the product that offers the highest value and lowest ownership cost.

Our industry should make the valve selection process more effective. A low initial purchase price should not trump innovation. The upfront purchase price may be the easiest way to quantify cost, but it is the worst way to measure value. These days, it may be more important than ever to buy the better mousetrap. It may be more a more difficult decision but it could be the best decision for your project and for the future of our industry.

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