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Software, Too Many Options and Not Enough Solutions

The Situation

Software is eating the world. Literally. There is software for anything and everything. The chemical industry has much to choose from. 

Let’s level-set on the primary types of software that exist in the market, several of which you either use today or at a minimum have heard about. 

Personal Productivity Software is generic software that can be used by any industry and even in any function. Everyone who has used a computer has experience with personal productivity software.

Microsoft Excel is a great example of personal productivity software that can be used in any industry and by any function. The two best features of Excel are individual control and cost. Each user is completely in control of how they use Excel. For management, the perceived cost is either zero or a small corporate IT allocation for MS Office as a whole. 

Excel is heavily used by technical staff in most labs. Your chemists probably have a love-hate relationship with the tool. While they love its flexibility, they struggle with saving all relevant data, versioning issues, collaborating with others on the same worksheet, and reusing their Excel work in future projects. These, indeed, are its major drawbacks on a per user basis, but the implications of this siloed way of working are compounded by the number of projects and lab staff at the organizational level.

Horizontal Software has been around for a long time and there are many big brands. SAP, Microsoft Dynamics and Sage are common horizontal applications that can be used in any industry. SAP, the longest running player in this market, is the gold standard for Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and, not surprisingly, you have to pay gold standard pricing.

It is estimated that "for a Fortune 500 company, software, hardware, and consulting costs can easily exceed $100 million (around $50 million to $500 million). Large companies can also spend $50 million to $100 million on upgrades. Full implementation of all modules can take years, which also adds to the end price. Midsized companies (fewer than 1,000 employees) are more likely to spend around $10 million to $20 million.”¹ 

Besides cost, the challenge with horizontal software is that it requires significant customization. This time consuming and comes with no guarantee you will 1) be able to properly define what you want in the context of the architecture of the horizontal software or 2) that you will ultimately get what you want when your project is over.

Single-Purpose Software Tools are very common in chemical companies and include: statistical software, lab notebook software, chemical drawing software, LIMS, custom applications built by your IT department, and many others. While they each do a good job in isolation, they don’t connect, which creates numerous efficiency, data integrity, and management issues as well as a very low rate of data archival. Similar to the problem found with individual Excel files, this lack of connectivity also compounds at the corporate level.

Custom-Built Software. A lot of chemical companies have designed, built, and run custom software applications. Most likely the prevalence of custom software is a result of not having great industry-specific alternatives and the fact that in-house software projects are incredibly enticing. Your internal teams know the domain intimately, have an opinion about what they want, and the initial cost to build any software is deceptively low - usually around 10% of the overall cost to maintain it.²

The challenges with internally built custom software are that you ultimately must spend the other 90% to get truly great applications. Your internal IT needs to regularly collect user feedback and then respond with the design, development and QA of regular enhancements and extensions, train users on those new features, and provide technical support. Your internal IT may not have the requisite technical skills to perform all these functions for high availability, secure applications managing data at scale across a variety of programming languages, nor be compensated to respond to business needs with the urgency of a tech company. When this is the case, your software will hold your business back. It will not be enabling, but in fact disabling of your strategy or operations. 

Vertical Software differs from horizontal software in that it is designed and built for only one industry as opposed to all industries. There are many examples of great vertical software for industries that have unique business processes. Examples include Procore in the construction industry where a developer needs to design, finance, and safely build a new structure, or Ellie Mae in the mortgage industry where lending banks need to originate and fund mortgage loans and provide detailed evidence of regulatory compliance.

Process Automation is a category of software unto itself. Process automation refers to the design, execution, and automation of processes based on rules where human tasks, system tasks, data, and/or files are routed between people or systems based on pre-defined business rules. Most chemicals and materials companies don’t leverage process automation software today, but they could!

The Solution

Alchemy’s Vertical Software = Process Automation With ELN/LIMS Features Built In. Alchemy is vertical software specifically for chemicals and materials companies. Alchemy’s process automation engine quickly digitalizes your best practice processes across the entire product lifecycle - all the processes involved in going from concept to chemistry to customer feedback until you have a formulation or an ingredient you can commercialize. 

Alchemy can replace entirely, or in part, at least 7 categories of software, obviating the need for the requisite IT costs to support them, making it easier and faster for people to do their work, and pooling your data in a single repository so you can analyze the superset of your data with people and/or AI/ML.


Alchemy generates a library of custom applications for you that builds in the functionality you would normally access in separate tools and software, so that everyone using Alchemy has access to both the data and the tools they need to do their job efficiently in one application. 

These software include: 

  • ELN - legacy electronic lab notebook software which is difficult to customize, wasn’t built for workflow automation, lacks intersected search, and is difficult to re-use data contained within
  • LIMS - laboratory information management systems were built to collect sample data and lack critical formulating and contextual project data
  • Personal productivity features commonly found in MS Excel and MS Word that are creating data silos today
  • API integrations to connect siloed software together
  • Custom applications for lab work requests or other single-purpose apps that must be defined, built, and maintained to fill legacy software gaps
  • Project management software - often custom apps that require manual data entry because status is buried in multiple disconnected systems which results in lost business
  • Process automation software - most companies don't have it in the lab today, but is often is a core part of longer-term digitalization strategy

Digital best practices are custom software applications that digitalize your processes as documented in your standard operating procedures, ISO documentation, training manuals, or as defined by your functional and team leadership. These custom software applications are built for your staff to use as they do their work. 

Some companies call this “Digital Transformation,” but digital transformation doesn’t connote the ultimate goal other than to be digital where once you were not. 

The Alchemy Effect

By building digital best practices in Alchemy, you rationalize the number of tools used and also consolidate valuable data which directly improve efficiency and effectiveness. Additionally, because your digital best practices are tailored not just for the industry, but for your company, processes, chemistries, products, organizational structure, geographic dispersion and culture, they enable you to scale efficiently as you grow. Finally, because these digital best practices are specifically built to facilitate your hypothesis-driven, iterative, non-linear lab work they support the engine of your growth. They specifically enable you to develop new products more efficiently and more effectively by automating manual and error-prone tasks, integrating access to functionality and relevant data for those working in the software, and providing real-time reporting capability for management.

In these ways, Alchemy helps you leverage both your historical work as well as structured data capture and analysis of new incoming requests. By enabling chemists to do their own searching and querying, you empower them with the tools and data they need to do either jobs efficiently and effectively. 

In Closing

Many of the largest chemicals companies in the world have long-standing and very public strategies around Digital Transformation. 

For instance, as written about in the Wall Street Journal, “Dow completed an eight year, $1 billion upgrade to its enterprise resource planning system that standardized it around the globe. Around the same time, Dow developed a capability that allowed it to quickly stand up or carve out business unit IT from its global platform, a tool it has used for many acquisitions and divestitures, Ms. Kalmar [Dow’s CIO] said. Ms. Kalmar’s team has been using that technology to stand up ERP systems to be transferred to the new DuPont and Corteva, she said. That capability is valuable. “Where we are today is in large part enabled by IT,” Dow CEO Jim Fitterling said in an interview.³ High praise, indeed!

While the largest of global enterprises may have the time, staff, and capital for such IT infrastructure, the rest of the industry generally does not. Alchemy enables you to digitally “stand up” a lab as a whole or digitally stand up a subset of your innovation-related operations, instantaneously anywhere in the world. Alchemy’s robust, modern platform enables you to build and deploy your digital best practices to drive innovation, the engine of your future growth.

Sources

1.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAP_ERP

2.https://fullcircleinsights.com/buying-vs-building-your-marketing-solutions-evaluating-the-costs-of-custom-software-development-on-the-force-com-platform/

3.https://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2018/07/26/dow-chemical-digital-chief-helps-shape-massive-restructuring/

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- Coatings R&D Director

“Seeing that materials created in the system can be dynamically linked to create TDS/SDSs is a game changer.”

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“Translating what was learned during the one-on-one sessions and actually doing it in Alchemy was awesome.”

-  Coatings Application Expert
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