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.


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