Challenges Abound for Product, Process Development and Process Design Information

April 11, 2011

Recently in my efforts to assist a client to find suppliers of certain product, I took the easy route -- i.e., search using one of the search engines. The results were very interesting. Most of the product/s were available from Chinese and/or Indian companies. All of the sites had minimal to no information on any physical properties or performance data. So asking them for information would have been a waste of time, as they have none.

Recently in my efforts to assist a client to find suppliers of certain product, I took the easy route -- i.e., search using one of the search engines. The results were very interesting. Most of the product/s were available from Chinese and/or Indian companies. All of the sites had minimal to no information on any physical properties or performance data. So asking them for information would have been a waste of time, as they have none.

Since I knew the application and potential products, and I have been following various mergers, my search by companies was an easier route. To my chagrin, I experienced the following: At the majority of websites if one clicked on "Contact Us" more than 75% of the time you get a form that you have to fill in (practically give your life away) and wait until the time whenever you get a response. For multinationals, one has to dig deeper to get to your country and hope there is contact telephone number so you can get a customer service telephone number. You might be lucky if you get the headquarters phone number on their website. Your project is on the path for a delayed schedule.

Since not many customer service numbers are available, you can call the main office and hope you will be able to talk with a live person who will give you a customer service number. You have to go through a debriefing before you get a number. Once you get the number, there is a 50% chance that you will have to leave a voice mail message and leave your number and hope you will get a call. This could be an unknown time. Your project got further delayed.

If you are lucky and are able talk with a live customer service person, they want to have detailed information about you (e-mail, phone number, state, and company name) before they can tell you whether they have a product that could come close to your needs. It seems they are more interested in filling a form indicating they talked with a person rather than exploring what a potential customer needs. They also want to know the annual quantity when I do not know whether their product will work for my application. Since we are dealing with chemicals, they want to know how the product would be used. They even have the audacity to ask the details of your product development. If you tell them it is under development and confidential your chances of success reduce dramatically. One has to make up some application scenario to go past the customer service person to talk with the right technical person. Since a chemical could be common for different applications, you can be bounced around. You may still end up leaving a voice mail message. If one does not answer the questions correctly there is a good possibility that information might not be provided.

Yes, everyone is busy. Are we too busy nursing our blackberries and e-mails that we do not have time to talk with the potential customer who puts food on our table? The question becomes how can the companies facilitate information availability to chemists and chemical engineers so that they can develop an efficient, economical and sustainable process or product? ICIS (OPD) and Chemical Week directories used to be an excellent source of information but not anymore. Their size has shrunk. Many producer companies have disappeared. I contacted some companies from the list for the products I needed. Many did not respond and other had the product category listed but no actual products. On one hand we want people to be productive but on the other hand create many road bumps for them to complete a project on time.

I can almost bet none of "C, MD, E, V or G" levels at any chemical companies have toyed with their website as a customer and found the challenges customers (existing and potential) have to face to get meaningful information. I am sorry to say most of the companies in the developed countries fall in this category. Companies in the developing countries will give you MSDS that has been copied and has minimal information. By having minimal information they might be fulfilling a regulatory obligation. I wonder if regulatory overseers have ever looked at them to see if they comply.

What are the downside consequences of ones inability to get the information on a timely basis?

1.     Delayed project.
2.     Disgruntled customer who has wasted her/his productive time.
3.     Since the information is not readily/easily available, there is an excellent possibility that the developed product would not work and has to be redone or the process is inefficient, uneconomical and unsustainable or extra effort is needed after the fact to optimize what was to be an excellent product or process. Unfortunately for active pharmaceutical ingredients and their formulations once the process is "blessed" there are no second chances.
4.     My conjecture is that the lack of information is the leading cause of not having "Quality by Design" processes for the manufacture of pharmaceuticals.  

I asked my colleagues/clients in the business do they encounter similar challenges. Each one of them chimed in and shared their sad stories. Less than 25% had good experiences. They rely on their network and on the sales person knocking on their door to share virtues of their offerings.

In the good old days -- it seems like a zillion years ago -- companies had brochures that were helpful and we had them stashed for reference. By the way they were an excellent source of physical property information. We all know physical and chemical structures do not change with age. Personal libraries were shared. At mega companies there were data books.

As chemical companies went through reconfiguration, the data availability started to become scarce. Internet brought the hope that it will reduce personal data banks and could easily access the information to design efficient, economic and sustainable process. Unfortunately that did not happen. It has become harder and a challenge to get minimal information. Material safety data sheets (MSDS) are provided as a substitute of technical data sheet. They do not even come close. Many at the companies agree that their websites are difficult to navigate and leave lot to be desired. I wonder why they do not ring the bell up the chain. 

If you want real product information, one has to register and almost sign their life away except for their family jewels and hope they will remember the password for future use. All this is dependent on one receiving a confirmation mail that one has to click to be part of the database. There is 50% chance one might not get lucky in these areas. I am sure there is some rationale reason for this personal information but I can bet none of this information is reviewed let alone used to follow up potential customer satisfaction. I also wonder how this information is being mined. Is it being abused? If you are able to log in and download the information there is no guarantee that necessary technical data including physical properties would be available. 

The bottom line: The above discussion is not complaining or a recitation of actual experiences but an identification of an opening and excellent opportunity for the companies to look at filling their half empty glass. It is very possible that in today's unsecure world "legal beagles" might advise against easy sharing of information but every crook will find the information one way or the other. By building road bumps and road blocks companies are ever lowering productivity of their own employees and their customers where information is needed to design a product and/or process.

How can one proceed to make their company's information more accessible to potential customers? First, the problem has to be recognized by "C, MD, E, V or G" levels in a company. Let them go incognito on their own website or a search engine to see what the reality of life looks like. It seems that in the name of protecting intellectual property we have lowered our productivity and creative thinking. They might also find out the navigational challenges their website creates. Maybe they might lead us to the rainbow? In addition, website are designed by designers to look pretty. They are but I wonder how much input they have from the actual users. A point to cogitate!

Girish Malhotra, PE
EPCOT International

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