Thursday, April 30, 2015

5 Must-Have tools for first-class R&D

Ask anyone in my family or in my company they will tell you I am not “Mr. Do-It-Yourself”.  I am what you might call “skills challenged”.  My grade in Jr. High shop class was “Absent”.  My 5 year old once asked me if I needed help with a repair project.  I think you get the idea.

So for this blog post we are going to use the word “tools” a bit loosely.

 From my observations in working with R&D labs over the years there are a few common elements that differentiate the truly gifted from … well … me with a hammer.

Sophisticated Lab Notebook- Most R&D labs have some form of Lab Notebook. They take many shapes and forms.  Many are still literally notebooks – you know – pad and paper.  Others have progressed to excel.  Yet others have created a custom Access database via a once employed lab intern who is no longer employed by the company.  The star students however have taken their game to the next level.  All the project work is in a database that is searchable and archived for easy access.  User fields are able to be added without programming and all this data is available to all members of R&D without complex copy & paste or band-aides and sneaker net.   The time saving is just shy of miraculous. Imagine an environment where marketing supplies an electronic requirements document.  Data from that request is passed into R&D where similar projects results are evaluated.  A large list of potential formulations are filtered to a manageable number.  A sample batch ticket is generated and samples are submitted for evaluation and are all tracked and measured as a routine KPI.  Utopia?  Well that is a reality today and more and more R&D companies have that vision at their fingers.

Access to historical, current and future RM costs – Most companies today have integrated access to the current cost of materials within formula development.  The ERP purchasing system automatically maintains the last purchase costs and little effort is spent on tracking these costs.  Fewer clients can look backwards and analyze formulation costs based on historical material costs.  This is helpful to understand why profits for a formulation may be eroding in time.  The real goal however is to incorporate anticipated material costs changes into the R&D formulation activities and selling cost analysis.  Where do you fit in this spectrum?  If you spend your day looking up current costs then you are 10 years behind the times.  If you can compare current formulation costs to 3 months, 6 months and 12 months ago you are better than average.  If you can use material cost predictors to estimate upcoming material costs and identify the current production formulations most affected by these changes – well you my friend are firing on all cylinders.

Ability to search historical formulations – why recreate the wheel if you have already solved the problem.  You would be amazed at how often companies formulate for the same requirements without even realizing they are doing it.  Once you have centralized your formulations out of excel and in a searchable database you next need a tool to query the database without adding programming staff.  Some of the key elements to search are existence of specific raw materials, quality specifications, material and labor costs, suppliers of raw materials and physical properties of materials such as allergens or hazard properties.  The search engine should also weigh the formulas by whether you current make these products and what some of the yields you have achieved during production.  Imagine your life if you had this information.  Well there are tools out there that are affordable and integrated that can help deliver this vision to your organization today.

Feedback look from Production to R&D – This is one of the simplest tools to implement but rarely is it done consistently.  Every commercialization process should include a review of all new formulations immediately after the first batches and then again after the formulas have been running for a while.  A focused informal meeting between production, quality and R&D on a routine basis can change the trajectory of your company.  First and foremost discuss yields.  Are there ways to improve the process?  Every % saved in yield is profit. Consider quality additions.  Should we change the process or the formula to eliminate or reduce the need for a second pass through quality? Every time a batch has to go through quality a second time it costs the company money.  Are there alternate ingredients or physical processes that could make the processing more efficient?  Getting three people in a room once per week to discuss 5 products is not difficult to do.  The results are amazing.

Track samples generated by R&D and measure conversion rates – How much time and effort does your company spend from sales through marketing into R&D and shipping to process just one new formulation sample?  It is VERY expensive.  How much time and what systems are in place to track the conversion of that sample into a sale?  My bet is there is 10 times the effort to make a sample as there is in tracking the conversion to sale.  How many samples turned into sales?  What customers have the highest (and lowest) conversion rates?  What is your cost of creating a new formula and how long will that formula be sold?  All these are valid questions to ask and there are tools available today to answer those questions.  Quite literally for $60/month the samples could be tracked using Microsoft Dynamics CRM.  It can be stand alone and hosted so the setup is literally minutes and it can make the world of difference to your company.

So those are some of the tools I see in the ideal R&D tool box. Some are simple to implement and others are more challenging.  All can have a positive impact on your company and all are available today.  If you are interested give us a call at Vicinity and see how we can implement some or all of these tools for you today.

The real question is – are you a do-it-yourself kind of person?  Or are you more like me?  I know my limitations and I have no issue asking for help.  Well many a little issue, but as I age I own my shortcomings a bit easier and call in a professional.

Happy hunting.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Zen of Formulation

The process to develop a new formula or recipe is a unique as the research chemist.  However there are some key elements that could make the process more productive and more efficient.  I will share some of my insights in this article.

Define the R&D Process - A standard process for the R&D department should be identified, communicated and tracked.  Following a standard process or workflow will reduce miscommunication and missed steps.

  • Create a tracking system for the project.  This should include a unique project identifier, description, customer/contact, due dates and key milestones.
  • Document requirements from marketing or the customer.  This can be as simple as an email request or as formal as a structured form completed by the customer
  • Store notes on the R&D process including formulas and versions considered and responses from the customer
  • Track samples sent to the customer this is a great use of Microsoft Dynamics CRM
  • Communicate resolution of the project to interested parties.  This includes sales, marketing, production and procurement.

Utilize a centralized database to track activitiesMicrosoft Dynamics CRM is a terrific tool to organize the workflow of the R&D process.  An opportunity can be created and linked to a customer or contact.  It can manage the steps of the process ensuring key steps are not overlooked and shares key data with relevant contacts.  One of the most important parts is to store the data in a sharable, searchable and reportable platform.  While this could be done in Excel for the prices of Microsoft Dynamics CRM at $45/month it seems silly not to utilize this tool.

Leverage the formula database to support queries – Most formula manufacturers today have access to formulas in their production system. Batch tickets are often created from these production formulas for commercialized formulas.  A far fewer number of R&D departments use their formula database for R&D.

This is a shame and should be changed.  Many of the same tools used to make product are needed for R&D.  This includes item lists, current costs, available inventory and usage data.

If your company does not have a comprehensive production formula database or if it is not flexible enough to support experimental formulas and ingredients you should really reevaluate your current system.  Vicinity software supports production and R&D formulas in the same databases.  This allows R&D to search and select from the entire list of formulas to meet a specific project requirement and to create new formulas from existing formulas for versions of formulas.

Obtain feedback from procurement, quality and production as a routine process – When a new formula is introduced into production a review process including members from procurement, R&D, quality and production should be present. You should be discussing unique elements of the new formula, special processing requirement and specific quality concerns that may exist.  This review should also be performed after the first few batches are produced and then again after 10-20 batches are produced.

This information could be critical to each department and getting ideas on how to address processing challenges is likely to occur.  Multiple heads is often better than just a few.

My hunch is that most R&D departments do some of these items but very few do all of them.  The key is structure and to leverage tools available to your organization. If the tools do not exist in your organization then look around.  They exist and are less expensive and more powerful than you may imagine.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Essential Advice for Lab Management

“No man is an island” is certainly a true axiom for R&D efforts.  I have a few observations that you might find helpful in reviewing R&D activities.

1) Integrate R&D in the production process – For most manufacturers one of the goals of the R&D department is to develop formulas or processes that can be performed by production.  The feed back loop is critical in the evolution of a formula and a company.

R&D understands the functional requirements of a formula and ways to deliver to the customer. Production understands how to make that vision.  The most successful R&D labs evaluate formulations based on the impact to production while still keeping the creative and problem solving element alive.  Not giving too much emphasis on either theoretical development or actual implementation can make for a nice balance.

Producing a feed back loop is the key.  R&D should be reviewing metrics like- how many part numbers/ingredients are they adding to inventory?  Are there ways to use equipment that is not part of a bottle neck rather than processes using sought after devices? How many QC modifications are being made by formula?  What materials are experiencing the highest cost increases in the next 12 months?  Is is possible to adjust existing or future formulas to account for these questions.

So meet with Production on occasion to discuss formulas that are working well and those that need adjustment.  Identify those formulas often run on the most active equipment and see if there are changes to be made to uses other equipment.  Get your system to report significant yield variance and QC adjustments by formula.

Once it has been brought to your attention look for ways to solve the problems. The changes could really affect the profitability of your company.

2)     Link CRM data to R&D data - With the advent of Microsoft Dynamics CRM (and others) the ability to record and track customer activity is not only cheap it is easy to implement.  One of the fastest ways to gain insight to your customer is to watch their patterns.  CRM can do that.

An effect R&D department will track the progress of a new formulation from the time a request is made, through preliminary development all the way to commercialization.  Hooking up your formulation/R&D database to a CRM opportunity management system makes this a simple task.

Imagine seeing the current R&D project backlog, customer history of requests vs sales and new requests statistics by product type.  These are simple queries once the data is joined in a logical manner.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Vicinity can do just that.  Add the opportunity in CRM and link it to a Vicinity Project and now all the related data in either CRM or Vicinity is forever joined. Analysis of history and trends becomes a by-product of the normal day to day activities.

3) Leverage your formula database for new formulations – few R&D departments start from scratch with a new formula request.  Most R&D labs scan through test formulas in excel or manual lab notebooks to get started.  Once they have a base to work from they add or take away ingredients or processes to achieve a desired result.

Why all the manual effort?  Imagine a system where all historical work was in a database that was searchable by user defined attributes.  The results could be compared and a potential candidate(s) reviewed further for consideration.  Now that would be helpful.

Vicinity software allows you to do just that.  Store all formulas, experimental trials and results in Vicinity.  The next time you are looking for something similar it is will be right there.

If you are not yet ready for Vicinity and are forced to use Excel make sure to use a standard format for your formulas.  Leave room in your design for user definable and validated data. This will make a search across spreadsheets possible – I never said it would be easy.

Get started today – get your work in an electronic format and use the right tool to get the job done.  The result will pay for the investment in short order.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Three Critical R&D Mistakes and How to Fix Them

This blog is going to talk about the three most common and critical R&D mistakes and how a software system like Vicinity can help correct them or avoid them altogether.

1) Overuse of Excel - As I travel to clients and prospects I find one of the most used R&D database tools is Microsoft Excel.  Everyone has it and everyone knows how to use it.  The problem is that what once was an efficient method to track R&D products soon grows to an administrative nightmare.

Excel was never designed to store significant amounts of data nor was it designed to share information outside of the spreadsheet.  YES you can do it but with a tall enough hill and enough speed a car can fly.  It is not the take-off that is the challenge, it is the landing.

So come out of Excel and get that data into a database.  When you do that you can mine that data and share information and insights with those around you.

Vicinity provides formula management as well as version control.  Any data you want to track about a formula is filed for easy access.  Once the formula is placed into production R&D can track the effectiveness of that formula via batch tickets that are tied directly to the master formula.  Subsequent adjustments to the formula become a snap once the data is centralized in a database and outside of Excel files with varying formats.

2) Too much reliance on history to predict the future – When developing R&D formulas it is typical for research chemists to obtain the latest material prices from purchasing.  They ask for a list of current prices to ensure their formulas are costed adequately.

While this is a terrific improvement over keeping an external list of items in R&D with costs from the 1990s it is still far from ideal.

Incorporating future costs along with current costs and the review of trends is a more accurate view of the formulation costs.

So keep talking with procurement but instead of asking for the last cost go one step further.  Look at the cost over the past 12 months as well as the trend in the upcoming months.  This change will result in a more realistic cost estimate and better project profitability for the proposed product.

Vicinity formula costs are automatically tied to current the prior cost of each material.  There is no need to contact purchasing for this data.  Instead you can ask them to provide a view into future costs.  Vicinity supports an unlimited number of proposed costs for a component.  This allows a research chemist/nutritionist the ability to cost a formula based on current inventory values but also anticipated trends into the future.

3) Sticky notes won’t cut it – Unless you just like working from scratch most research chemists will leverage work already performed to help build a basis for a new formulation.  If you have already done something similar why recreate the wheel?

The challenge is remembering (or finding) what the R&D lab has worked on before, the results of bench tests and acceptance by the customer market.  If only you had that data available to search.

Well it never gets built unless you start building it today.

It is not practical to think you can archive all the work you have ever done.  But you can start archiving today.  Make a list of the key search criteria and get that data into a structured format (NOT EXCEL) so you can search on that data in the future.  Before you know it you will have quite the database of formulas to choose from. In all your spare time you can work backwards entering old formulas into your new data goldmine.

Vicinity out of the box has the ability for a user to define an unlimited number of search fields.  We call these attributes.  These attributes help you describe the formula in way that will help your future-self find the formulas you created in the past.  All this without a bit of programming.
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