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Have you ever thought about how drugs get made? Not your Walter-White kind of drugs but proper ethical pharmaceuticals. As the Wall Street Journal tells it, major players in the industry like Novartis and Johnson & Johnson are taking new approach to producing drugs (Drug Making Breaks Away From Its Old Ways, Feb 8).

For decades, drug makers have used cutting-edge science to discover medicines but have manufactured them using techniques dating to the days of the steam engine. …

Under the new approach, raw materials are fed into a single, continuously running process. Many other industries adopted such a “continuous-manufacturing” approach years ago, because quality can be checked without interrupting production—with weeks shaved off production times and operating expenses cut by as much as 50%.

Until recently, pharmaceutical companies have been stuck making drugs the old-fashioned way, mixing ingredients in large vats and in separate steps, often at separate plants and with no way to check for quality until after each step is finished. Any desire to modernize was partly blunted, industry officials say, by the high margins netted on the industry’s string of billion-dollar-selling drugs.

To give you an idea of the scope of what is happening, the article reports that J&J is aiming to have 70% of its highest volume products produced under a continuous-manufacturing approach within eight years. Continue Reading »

When you call some firm’s customer service number, do you really care whom you talk to? I mean, beyond basic competence in addressing your request or walking through how to solve a problem, do you really care? Would it matter if there were some way of matching you with a better agent? “Better” here is not about skill level, per se, but rather about someone who matches your personality type. That is, you and I may call with the exact same issue but have different agents recommend as best for each of us based on just how we behave on the phone.

This is the kind of service offered by a Chicago-based firm called Mattersight, which has been featured in recent articles in both Crain’s Chicago Business (Why you might not hate calling customer service next time, Feb 12) and InformationWeek (Big Data: Matching Personalities In The Call Center, Feb 17). Here is how Crain’s describes what they do:

Your call is automatically routed to a like-minded agent who’s been matched to you according to factors such as communication style and personality type. It sounds a little like science fiction, but it works. Clients such as pharmacist CVS Health and online insurers Progressive and Esurance (an Allstate subsidiary) say Mattersight’s software speeds up calls, boosts sales or raises customer satisfaction by 10 percent or more. …

Mattersight’s product, based on more than 10 million algorithms developed by an in-house team of behavioral scientists, is overseen by David Gustafson, Mattersight’s product chief and executive vice president. The algorithms are if-then statements that analyze callers according to speech patterns and cadence in order to gauge their personality type and mood and route them toward a simpatico customer-service rep.

People’s speech patterns constitute “an emotional syntax,” says Gustafson, 37, one that can quickly demonstrate whether a caller “is someone who values order and logic, or if they’re fun, spontaneous and creative.” The best customer service reps are adept at working with all personality groups but still do better with one type or another; Mattersight’s tech aims to play to that strong suit as often as possible.

Continue Reading »

Check out these number from the Wall Street Journal (How to Make Surgery Safer, Feb 16).

IV-AA691B_SAFET_16U_20150213123306

A little disconcerting, eh? Now there are obviously a lot of surgeries taking place every day in the US, so on a percentage basis having just 20 procedure in which the surgeon operates on the wrong site is very low. Still, that is not very helpful t the person who has a stitches on the wrong side of their body.

So what can be done to make surgery safer and more reliable? Continue Reading »

What?! No Dessert?

I have a sweet tooth. I am rarely too full to pass on dessert. However, an article in Washingtonian magazine suggests that restaurants (at least those in metro DC) may inadvertently be saving people like me from ourselves by offering less attractive options for dessert or even foregoing offering dessert all together (Why DC Restaurants No Longer Care About Desserts, Feb 4). The interesting part of this is that the retreat from dessert is largely driven by economic and operational concerns.

In the post-crash economy, pastry chefs are no longer seen as essential employees but as pricey appendages.

“It’s not just saving the salary,” one restaurant owner told me. “It’s saving the space, too. To have a good pastry program, you need a designated area of the kitchen, you need a place to store the ingredients. The 10,000-square-foot restaurant has become the 7,000-square-foot restaurant. Everything’s smaller now. There isn’t the space.”

More and more, the task falls to chefs and line cooks who, lacking any background in baking, have contrived to fill their menus with simple, quick-fix solutions. Puddings, custards, panna cotta (an Italian term for what is essentially Jell-O made with cream) don’t require a lot of effort or expense; all can be made in the morning and stashed in the walk-in refrigerator.

Some restaurants have given up entirely. “More restaurants than you would think” are outsourcing their sweets to independent bakers, says Mark Bucher, who owns Medium Rare, with locations in Cleveland Park and Barracks Row. Bucher’s is among them. “You give them your recipes and they’ll make them for you. That way you can still say that they’re your desserts.”

Continue Reading »

Sustaining manufacturing in the US (or any high wage location) has been one of the recurring themes in this blog. Manufacturing has long meant well-paying jobs for those without advanced education. The loss of manufacturing jobs consequently causes much hand wringing as policy makers and workers about how a large number of people will achieve a modicum of middle-class financial security. Consequently, firms that are finding away to compete with US-based manufacturing are interesting.

That brings us to Zuzii, an LA-based firm producing made-to-order shoes that retail for $90. Here is a video from Marketplace about the company (A visit to LA-based shoe company Zuzii, Feb 16).

Here is the accompanying radio report that has some additional information.

So what is it about Zuzii that lets them succeed?  Continue Reading »

As you may have heard, West Coast ports are having some labor issues. The Pacific Maritime Association (which represents the shipping lines and terminal operators) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been going at it, affecting about 20,000 workers at 29 West Coast ports. (Can’t name 29 Wet Coast ports? See here.) The LA Times has a nice summary of what is in play. In a nutshell, management claims that the union is engaging in a slow down (effectively striking while getting paid, see here) while the union claims that they are responding to safety concerns (at LA and Long Beach) and that management is misrepresenting their position. In any event, what has resulted is lots of delays and a  slew of ships waiting off the coast for their chance to unload. (Never seen a slew of ships? Check out these images.)

OK, that’s all well and good, but how is this affecting supply chains? The sheer scale of the problem is rather mind-blowing. If it were just a question of losing one port, things wouldn’t be too bad. Ships bound for LA, could be sent to Oakland or Seattle. But it’s the entire West Coast. If the goods need to be offload to an US port, that means going all the way to the Gulf Coast or the East Coast. It’s not clear that is an easy solution. Part of why LA and Long Beach are such busy ports is that they have an entire infrastructure to support them. Even if a ship could get to, say, Charleston, it’s not clear that it would do a lot of good for some of the customers whose stuff is on the ship. If a company’s whole logistics system is based on breaking bulk in the Central Valley, having a bunch of containers in South Carolina is, at best, an inconvenience. Continue Reading »

It’s Valentine’s Day and that means roses and big business for flower shops. But how do flower shops get their roses? NPR’s All Things Considered answers that question if, say, you are a shop in the market for 25,000 roses (For Florists, Roses A Nerve-Racking Business Around Valentines Day, Feb 13). Enjoy!

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