Vikki Allen looks at the ways both global and small analytical instrument companies get a new product to the market

Vikki Allen looks at the ways both global and small analytical instrument companies get a new product to the market

The analytical instruments industry is a multimillion pound business, built on chemists’ desire for faster and more accurate results, and many companies are keen to get a slice of the profits.

One such company is PerkinElmer, a global organisation that supplies scientific instruments and consumables to the pharmaceutical, biomedical and environmental testing markets. ’This is a complex, pretty serious business, with high stakes for all of us involved in this industry,’ says Ian Shuttler, inorganic business manager in PerkinElmer’s environmental and chemical business unit.

Until recently, Shuttler was portfolio director in the unit. In this role he managed the product development strategies to enable PerkinElmer to get the right products to the market at the right time. Ensuring customer satisfaction and profitability for the company are priorities. This is business on a large scale. PerkinElmer returned a revenue of $1.54 billion from its global operations in 2003.

Developing a new analytical instrument and launching it requires a ’subtle decision balance between what looks technically exciting and the commercial issues,’ admits Shuttler. Many criteria are taken into account when developing a product, but Shuttler stresses that customer feedback and input play a vital role early in the planning, during the development and launch of a product. Inevitably, for any company, the decision of whether or not to go ahead with an idea depends on projected profits.

PerkinElmer follows a ’phase-gate’ process, mapping a product’s progress from idea to market. This process allows the development teams to assess and monitor the technical progress, weigh up the investment required and decide whether or not the product will be worthwhile in terms of final sales. The phase-gate also provides an opportunity to track the potential product market and keep up to date with customer expectations.

Maintaining a steady stream of new ideas for potential development is essential for a company to remain a successful market player, considering that few ideas make it as far as the market. Working closely with customer contacts is a valuable way of getting up to date information on what equipment people want and how they want to use it. Company employees and sales representatives also attend meetings and conferences around the world and read scientific journals and the trade press to help them identify new areas.

According to Shuttler, once you have identified an opportunity in the market, you need to start planning immediately. The challenge comes in deciding what is needed and how quickly because development can take typically six to 24 months to complete within a large company. Modernising an old piece of technology, for example by adding a touch-screen interface, may take a lot of customer input but can be achieved in just a few months. On the other hand, a brand new technology may take years to complete. In general, if an idea needs some pure research to check technical feasibility, then this can take up to 12 months, prior to any decision to move into development, says Shuttler.

A large instrument company may consider around 200 ideas at any one time. At PerkinElmer up to 50 per cent of initial ideas will be considered seriously and a business plan compiled, explains Shuttler. Of these, perhaps 10 will show promise and be worked on in earnest. Of these 10, maybe two or three projects will work. These are put into what the company calls the ’development phase’ - a stage that, once entered, means the product will be developed fully for market. To maintain a steady stream of new products through development, there ’needs to be lots of ideas coming in to constantly feed to process’, says Shuttler.

The launch of any product is important and work on marketing campaigns normally begins half way through a product’s development. This helps ensure it is launched at the best time. Although customer requirements and economics are important considerations, there are others that are just as important.

Electrical components and circuits are constantly being developed and improved which means they can quickly become obsolete. To prevent the components in analytical instruments from needing to be constantly updated, a reliable supply of them needs to be available during manufacture and following the launch of a product to allow for instrument service and maintenance.

Companies also keep an eye on the latest releases of computer operating systems and software. A company has to be sure that its new products work using the latest software and that older products continue to work. This needs to be part of an ongoing programme in any company as part of its customer care. However, identifying potential customers and understanding their needs remains the primary safe-guard against market failure.

Although the way that business is carried out within a smaller company is much the same as for larger companies, there are some differences. Projected profits and the success of products in the market still determine what a company is able to do. Many of the risk factors are the same but they can have proportionately greater effects on a small company.

Malcolm Lee is sales and marketing director at Biochrom a manufacturer of amino acid analysers and UV/visible spectrophotometers and other products. Biochrom is a small business, employing just 65 people, and manufacturing around 8000 instruments each year for distribution worldwide. It has an annual turnover of about ?20 million and is part of a larger group, Harvard Apparatus.

Biochrom minimises risks by concentrating its efforts on stable markets. Spectrophotometers are everyday instruments in many laboratories and sales in this area are key to business. Biochrom also supplies teaching level machines to schools, colleges and universities, accounting for 15 per cent of sales. By focusing on established technologies and markets and customer feedback, Biochrom is also able to invest in innovation and alternative technologies, says Lee.

There are benefits and limitations to both large and small instrument companies. Large companies are often able to supply many identical machines to big businesses that operate in several locations and their wide range of products means they are often found on customers’ lists of preferred suppliers. Large companies also have strong product brands in their favour and tend to have more money available than smaller companies for fundamental research or research into alternative technologies. Smaller companies tend to advertise through their distributors and growing businesses such as Biochrom are always looking to improve and promote their image.

A small instrument company often has a limited number of staff but they will usually be working in one place, which means there is always someone on hand who understands a particular product and how it works. For Biochrom, this means it can respond quickly to any problems that may arise. It places emphasis on working closely with customers, as well as with other companies in the Harvard Apparatus group and with the distributors, which also sell and market the products. ’"Partnership" really is a buzz word for the company philosophy,’ says Lee.

Being a relatively small concern, Biochrom takes a more holistic approach to instrument development. All work is project driven with a five-year roadmap of planned developments and around five projects being worked on at any one time. This means that many of the staff work in small, skilled teams and need to be flexible as they take part in many aspects of planning and development. Staff can also find themselves working on more than one project at a time. Lee says that ’this is all very much a juggling act. But the good team work and communication leads to motivation’.

Customers will increasingly rely on instruments for rapid results and demand ever more precise equipment. As chemists come to expect a range of instruments suitable for schools, research institutes and quality control laboratories alike, the future will continue to hold challenges for the scientists who develop them. However there is a drawback. As with any new instrument, ’we need to be able to make it at a price that the market will pay,’ says Lee.

Further Reading

  • G Squires, J. Chem. Soc., Dalton. Trans.1998, 3893   

A brief history of the mass spectrometer

Many of the instruments used in today’s laboratories have only been developed during the last 100 years. One commonly used instrument that has been influential in furthering scientific discovery since the early 1900s is the mass spectrometer.

Mass spectrometry (MS) is widely used in chemistry, physics and biology as well as in many other disciplines. The advances in this technique, since it was first developed, are impressive.

In laboratories today, MS results can give molecular weights to five decimal places and detect trace impurity levels as low as one part per million. This is a significant improvement from the 1919 results, when Francis William Aston accurately determined the masses of individual atoms to the nearest integer.

Aston was the first person to show, beyond any experimental doubt, that Neon was made up of two isotopes, 22Ne and 20Ne. Although the existence of isotopes for elements had already been suggested, it wasn’t until 1919 that the mass spectrograph, built by Aston, produced a photograph as proof. This proof is still on show at the Cavendish Museum, Cambridge, UK.

Gordon Squires, a retired lecturer from the Cambridge University physics department who now looks after the exhibits at the museum said that ’Aston is recognised as the pioneer in mass spectroscopy.’

As photographic technology advanced, the plates which recorded the traces from atoms became more sensitive. Early atom analysis wasn’t easy. ’It took a lot of skill to get the instrument working,’ explains Squires ’and patience as it could take several weeks to run an experiment.’

The techniques used today in MS are highly sophisticated but the basic ideas are similar. Modern MS is often used with other techniques to improve results. Using analytical techniques in sequence brings added benefits.

For example, linking chromatography to MS can give a range of results about sample purity and composition from a single sample. Linking two mass spectrometers sequentially can isolate a particular compound within a mixture and provide an analysis of both.