The most important reaction in chemistry is the one in which you transform chemicals into money. Some chemicals convert into a lot of money per kg, others not so much. The kind of money you want to focus on is profit. Just turning cash over at cost wears thin rapidly and is hazardous to your career. At the end of the day, after you’ve paid the raw mat vendors, payroll, and the feds, you want to have a steaming heap of luchre left over as profit.

At some point in the game, everyone in fine chemical manufacturing realizes that you can’t make everything in-house. There are good reasons to consider making as many intermediates as you can. When you buy an intermediate, the vendors price (cost + profit) becomes the cost you plug into the economics. Optimally, you might be able to make the material cheaper than buying it … eventually. But some raw materials are deceptively simple looking. A company can rack up a lot of brain damage and wasted time trying to make certain kinds of materials outside of your skill set.

We used to joke that at some point in process development, you have to shoot the chemist and get on with scale-up. Often, the decision to make-or-buy an intermediate gets to the table only after you try to make it. In process development, it is important to identify the make-or-buy decisions as early as possible. This can save valuable time. While you may end up spending more per unit mass for the material, not having to make it is equivalent to opening up extra capacity in your facility. Ideally, your want precious reactor/equipment hours spent on the highest value added steps. With each successive step, the value of the intermediate becomes greater.

If your make-or-buy decision revolves around a known item of commerce, then the economics and scheduling is relatively easy. You will have to settle on specifications, delivery schedule, shipment details, and pricing. If the material is not TSCA listed, then you will have to get the vendor moving early on a filing with the EPA, if they are in the USA. If you intend to import a non-TSCA listed fine chemical, not for pharma, ag, food, or other covered use, then the importer of record is responsible for the TSCA paperwork. This can take a few months of lead time.

But if the compound is novel and/or proprietary, then it is instantly much more complex. Not only do you have  to deal with the EPA on TSCA filing, but you have to find a vendor who is willing and able to ramp up a new process. They will need specs, projected delivery information, an agreeable price, and quite possibly a lined-out process and analytical methods. If the vendor has available capacity, this might happen as quickly as 3-4 months. More likely than not, this can take 6-9 months.

If your raw material is part of a critical technology or major account, then you may have to consider dual sourcing. If one plant goes down or the quality or delivery drifts beyond what is acceptable, then you still have one facility that can deliver. And, if you have two vendors, you can start a dandy little bidding war between them for your business. Many companies require their purchasing managers to qualify two vendors for crucial materials. You can argue that you should always have two vendors, but many times the amount of business the material feeds into is too small to bother with.

Chemical manufacturing is much more than reaction chemistry. A chemist in manufacturing can find him/herself involved in many kinds of work.   Regulations, chemistry, process safety, engineering, packaging issues, IP, marketing, and process economics add up to the knowledge set that a chemist needs to acquire while heading up the career ladder.