“Process” R&D can be distinguished from “product” R&D based on the target of the work performed and the end goal which is hoped to be achieved. “Process” R&D concerns new or improved systems, tools, algorithms, workflows or methodologies, as opposed to “product” R&D which concerns itself with new or improved widgets, physical goods or software.
Some R&D involves new and improved processes and also enabling hardware, devices and software. In these cases, it is often not possible to draw a clear distinction between pure “process” and pure “product” engineering.
Certain industries and disciplines are well known for engaging mostly in process R&D. Manufacturing is a good example. Inventing and optimizing robotic cells, manufacturing lines, workstations, paint lines, welding rigs, etc all involve mostly process R&D. Engineering is another discipline where there is a high focus on process R&D. Enhancing techniques in analysis tools like FEA (finite element analysis), CFD (computational fluid dynamics and CAD/CAM are all process-related areas for advancement.
SR&ED as we know is a subset of R&D. It is the part of R&D which is concerned with resolving technological unknowns and obstacles via experimentation. A key definition of SR&ED incorporates process R&D. See here:
“experimental development, namely, work undertaken for the purpose of achieving technological advancement for the purpose of creating new, or improving existing, materials, devices, products or processes, including incremental improvements thereto”
To qualify as SR&ED, you don’t necessarily need to invent an entirely new process. Improvements to existing processes can also be SRED as long as you faced technological obstacles while attempting the process improvements.