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Cleaning up on the Web

onsumer product companies and their suppliers turn to Internet for collaboration

by Michael McCoy
January 20, 2004

The development of new consumer products is very much a hands-on, laboratory-based endeavor. Still, several companies are using the Internet to more efficiently receive and transmit the scientific knowledge needed to make that endeavor a successful one.

Over the past year, Procter & Gamble and Henkel, two of the world's top household products companies, have joined InnoCentive, the Internet-based forum where companies can anonymously post their scientific problems for solving by outsiders. Posted problems are available for viewing by the more than 25,000 scientists who have registered with InnoCentive; the successful problem solver is rewarded with a cash prize from the seeker company.

Henkel signed up as a solution seeker on InnoCentive just last fall, and already, its laundry and home care business has solved its first technical problems using the service, according to Thomas Müller-Kirschbaum, the business's head of worldwide production and technology development.

"Innovations are the driving force of our business. They underline the difference between brands and no-name products," Müller-Kirschbaum says. "As brand manufacturers, we are increasingly using external resources as a complementary source of innovation within the company. This Internet forum is the perfect instrument for this in this day and age."

Likewise, J. Keith Grime, vice president of R&D for P&G's global fabric and home care unit, says his company's R&D organization is trying to involve more external resources in the innovation process. The company has already made several InnoCentive awards on a wide range of problems, he says. P&G is also a founder of YourEncore, a service that connects the technology and product development needs of member companies with retirees who have scientific backgrounds. And it is working with the consulting firm NineSigma to connect to innovators around the world using NineSigma's Managed Exchange process.

It's not just consumer product companies that are using the Internet to exchange scientific knowledge. Suppliers of chemicals to the home and personal care markets like Dow Chemical, BASF, Degussa, and Rhodia are also InnoCentive members. And Rhodia is getting ready to launch its own Internet-enabled service, called Virtual Advisor, designed to efficiently answer technical questions from customers and fellow ingredient suppliers.

Phil Matena, vice president of Rhodia's global personal care business, says the company began to develop Virtual Advisor two years ago as an answer to the technical service quandary that plagues many chemical companies. "There's a driving need to provide technical service for customers. Demand is rising as customers 'right-size' their own technical resources," he says. But technical service is a financial burden on the provider, and it can be inefficient--similar questions get posed over and over from different customers across the globe.

Matena's business brainstormed with Rhodia's information technology group about ways to increase the efficiency of technical service. They determined that they needed a networking tool to link together technical service experts and a smart database to store their answers to technical questions for easy access by subsequent questioners.

Rhodia hired two software companies, Blue Martini and Kadiera, to come up with a system. According to Matena, their first prototype failed. Their second worked, but not well enough. The challenge, he says, was creating database software smart enough to analyze a complex technical question from 15 to 20 angles to determine the essence of what the questioner wants.

Last year, Matena says, the software companies finally delivered a product that Rhodia's information technology people are happy with. The product understands chemical terminology and can ask clarifying questions, much as a live technical service person would. Questions that are in Rhodia's database are answered instantly. Questions that aren't are sent out to a pool of technical service people with the promise of an answer within one working day. That answer is then added to the database so it can be offered instantly in the future.

Rhodia's live technical service will be initially provided by company staffers linked by the networking software. Matena's plan, however, is to attract retired industry veterans to the network. He also wants to bring in what he calls collateral suppliers--companies that supply the personal care industry but that don't compete with Rhodia. Those firms can then add their own questions and contribute their own experts to the network. Matena expects these initiatives to increase the database's content from a few thousand questions and answers today to tens of thousands within a few years.

Rhodia is piloting Virtual Advisor with two customers in the personal care industry and is receiving "encouraging" feedback, Matena says. He is also in contact with collateral suppliers that want to join the network when it goes commercial, likely in the first half of this year.

If the service is a success, Rhodia plans to expand it to other units, such as home and fabric care or silicones. Rhodia owns the related intellectual property for the chemical industry, and its software company collaborators are free to apply it to other industries.

Matena acknowledges that Virtual Advisor has been a while in the making, but he says he's not willing to launch the service before it is completely ready. "We don't want to jeopardize success by being too hasty," he says. "If users don't get real-time gratification, they won't come back."


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