Strong instrument sales belie slow device development

Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China 

China’s analytical instrument industry is expanding rapidly - with rising investment, exports and imports and record sales - but failing to meet the high-tech demands of researchers.  

Figures released by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) show that 11.6 billion yuan (US$1.7 billion) were invested in the sector in the first five months of 2008, up 39 per cent on the same period last year. 

Meanwhile, China’s analytical instrument industry recorded a 29 per cent growth in sales in 2007, with profits rising by 35 per cent, according to the China Instrument Manufacturer Association. 

But the sector remains one of the few in which China sells less than it buys. According to Jin Guofan, a leading instrument scientist at Tsinghua University, markets for sophisticated analytical equipment such as gas chromatographs and high performance liquid chromatographs are still dominated by international players like Agilent and Thermo Fisher. 

Statistics from China Customs indicate that exports by China’s instrument sector rose by 40.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2008 to US$9.44 billion, while imports rose by 35 per cent to US$17.97 billion. 

In the past, China’s research funding didn’t cover instrument development and Chinese scientists have tended to use the same analytical equipment as their international peers, explains Shi Zhenshan, a senior researcher at the Beijing-based Instrumentation Technology and Economy Institute. There remains a gap between researchers and instrument developers in China, so that the latter has not caught up with current research demands.  

Many firms are not taking advantage of China’s strong manufacturing capacity. According to Qiu Tongyu, commercial manager in China for the US environmental engineering company Hach, there is a strong local demand for its water monitoring devices yet most of its production facilities remain outside China. ’The low labour costs that China offers are not so important in instrument manufacturing and China lacks a complete supply chain for instrument development,’ he says. 

But the landscape is changing, says Shi. ’While the leading Chinese labs in institutions like Peking and Tsinghua universities are dominated by imported equipment, smaller institutes are beginning to favour Chinese low-cost instruments,’ he told Chemistry World