G1101-i Isotopic Carbon Dioxide Analyzer

Picarro’s G1101-i Isotopic Carbon Dioxide Analyzer

Analytical instrument buyers and sellers weigh features versus cost.

Whatever the industry, researchers and scientist are likely to be using analytical instruments such as sensors, meters, analyzers, spectrometers, and more in their daily work. The questions then, are how efficient, how cost-effective, and how easy to use are the analytical tools currently on the market. R&D Magazine surveyed readers to discover the types of analytical instruments they commonly use, whether they are satisfied with current technology, and what features or functions can be improved. Do instruments on the market make the grade? Read on to discover what readers and vendors had to say.

Many respondents worked at a project level for their companies (27%), closely followed by professional staff members (20%), and corporate level employees (14%). Besides academia, industries included biotechnology, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, materials, and semiconductors. And, while 57% of the respondents were involved in the discipline of chemistry, material science (40%), engineering (46%), and electronics (31%), were also heavily represented.

Despite such variations among work titles, industries, and disciplines, 80% of the respondents had some involvement in the purchasing of instruments; the respondents were clearly knowledgeable about the instruments examined in the study. And, in the context of the global recession of 2008-2009, respondents had an overall bright outlook. About 64% say funding for analytical instruments will remain stable over the next two years; 18% predict it will increase.

Survey says …
What technologies or analytical instruments do respondents typically use? The answers and technologies varied. Topping the list was microscopes, cited by 83% of the respondents. Almost 80% use data handling and management tools, emphasizing the importance of software and systems to manage all the data generated by analytical instruments. How is the data collected? In addition to stand-alone instruments, researchers use meters and probes (75%), sensors (64%), spectrometers (67%), and analyzers (60%).

What is the condition of the analytical instruments currently in laboratories? Most respondents claimed they were using somewhat older equipment that lacked capabilities of more state-of-the-art instruments. About 22% of the respondents invested in new, enhanced tools that have all the capabilities needed for research and development.

What improvements would researchers like to see? Answers ranged widely based on the technology itself. While 38% of the respondents wished for easier-to-use data handling and management, about one-third asked for more cost-effective meters/probes and microscopes. Most felt that many improvements were needed to analytical instruments currently on the market. How does software influence the decision-making process when purchasing instruments? Around 60% claimed it had a large influence on their decision; only 7% said it never did, suggesting that software is integral to the performance of the instrumentation.

Smart-Track 2 with compod

Sierra Instruments' Smart-Track 2 with compod

From our survey, R&D Magazine finds that most users are satisfied with analytical instruments now available. But, users are also clearly hoping for improvements that could improve their research and their budget outlook.

Vendors say …
March is a busy month for analytical instrument manufacturers. Vendors use two major trade shows (Pittcon, February 28-March 4, Orlando, Fla.) and Analytica (March 23-26, Munich), to launch new instruments and tools. So, what is the state of analytical instruments and accompanying tools? Why are meters, analyzers, and sensors important to laboratories or users? Stephen Poirier, vice president of business development at GE Analytical Instruments, Boulder, Colo., says “these are the basic tools that are used by all laboratories to either identify or quantify the analytes they are interested in.”

These tools are found in almost all laboratories and range in analytical applications such as gas, water, temperature, moisture, and more. This instrumentation is industry-specific. For example, GE Analytical Instruments manufactures instruments to measure the total organic carbon (TOC) in water. While many industries are interested in TOC measurements, Poirier says that the pharmaceutical industry is a major user since the US Food and Drug Administration requires measurement of TOC in the manufacturing of pharmaceutical products because of the potential health risks to patients.

Sierra Instruments, Monterey, Calif., manufactures mass flow controllers, like the Smart-Trak 2 with optional Compod, for applications that produce chemical reactions. Scott Rouse, product line director, All Flow Meters, says, “Chemical reactions are quantified on the basis of molecules, or mass, so mass flow controllers are needed to ensure the correct quantities.”

Picarro, Sunnyvale, Calif., markets analyzers for environmental industries. “Our customers are primarily environmental researchers who are really focused and passionate about understanding the mechanisms that drive the environment around us. They are trying to understand hydrology (the cycle of water around the planet) and greenhouse gases,” says Eric Crosson, CTO of Picarro.

These analyzers measure everything from isotopic composition of water to CO2 gas measurements. Ultimately, researchers will use these analyzers to measure samples in the field to gain understanding of the mechanisms that drive hydrology and greenhouse gases.

While 33% of users said that they wished meter and probes were less expensive, vendors tended to identify areas other than cost when discussing necessary improvements. Poirier says there are three general classes of improvements customers seek. The first is the analytical performance of the analyzer, which, according to Poirier, “simply means improving the accuracy, improving precision, and improving sensitivity.”

The second is ease-of-use from the customer’s perspective. “A lot of this perception deals with the software that is developed for these instruments; the more you can automate what the instrument does, the greater the perception from the customer standpoint that the instrumentation is easier to use,” Poirier says.

The third classification, according to Poirier, is the reliability of the analyzer, meter, or sensor. He continues, “The more up-time that an instrument has, the less time the user has to spend maintaining the performance of the instrument, and the more productive the analytical tool becomes.”

However, while GE Analytical Instruments’ Poirier found analytical performance, ease-of-use, and reliability as the major improvements needed to analyzers, meters, and sensors, Picarro’s Crosson sided with survey respondents that cost-effectiveness was the ultimate issue.

Sievers 900 Laboratory TOC Analyzer and GE Autosampler

The Sievers 900 Laboratory TOC Analyzer and GE Autosampler from GE Analytical Instruments.

Does size matter?
Brian Elias, director of engineering at Cal Sensors, Santa Rosa, Calif., felt that customers not only want vendors and manufacturers to improve the cost of their products and the performance of their products, but also the size of current analyzers, meters, and sensors on the market. “The other thing that we see customers want manufacturers to do is reduce the size of sensors. This reduction of the size of the equipment also helps lower the power consumption of the equipment,” says Elias.

Handheld or benchtop applications are new trends, according to the feedback from manufacturers. However, while decreasing the size and footprint of instruments, vendors do not want to compromise the performance of the instruments. Elias says that accuracy, repeatability, reliability, and performance are all important to instrument users, and, a reduction of the size of an instrument—without losing the performance of the instrument—can lead to a reduction of cost, the top priority of survey respondents.

Rouse sees sensors and meters are becoming smarter. With smarter technology there is a need for more “built-in communications and networking,” he says. There is also a need for this instrumentation to handle multiple functions in an efficient way.

And while each company made improvements based on their development priorities, they all are hoping to address the requests of customers. According to feedback from vendors, customers are leaning more toward benchtop or handheld equipment that feature lower costs and easier-to-use software.

“We try to have a continual improvement program to meet our user’s needs upon receiving feedback from our users,” says Elias. For example, Cal Sensors integrated their detector with drive electronics into a sensor, which made it easier for customers to design/build the measurement instrumentation that they need, says Elias.

While Cal Sensors has made it easier for customers to create the analytical instrumentation they want for, Picarro has changed its software. “We actually operate our analyzers using a Windows-based system,” says Crosson. “Our overall philosophy for our analyzers is to provide not only the answers that our users want, but also to provide diagnostics so that the user can determine that the measurements that were made are indeed correct. With a Windows system, most people can operate the software intuitively.”

Developers at GE Analytical Instruments also stress the importance and ease-of-use of their software.

“Our latest [TOC] instrument has touch screen software, so that instead of driving buttons from a keyboard,” a user can simply touch their screen and accomplish any action they the instrument to take, says Poirier. However, for users, there is another piece to the software puzzle besides ease-of-use: getting the instrument data into a database automatically. “In the case of laboratory instrumentation, users usually expect their instruments to translate data over to a LIMS system,” says Poirier and the ease and speed in which this data transfer is done enhances the quality of the software.

It is apparent that analytical technology still has a ways to go before meeting the full list of needs and demands from users. However, vendors are working to meet these needs, and make analytical instrumentation easier to use, more cost effective, and smaller for laboratory users.

Published in R & D magazine: Vol. 52, No. 1, February, 2010, pp.8-9.