Recently, I met with a senior manager of a business that builds very unsexy handheld analytical instruments. "My product is just an industrial instrument," he said, "but my customers go home and use iPads and iPhones and are starting to ask why my product isn’t more like those."
What may sound like an obvious question is actually a deeper statement on the commercial and industrial analytical instruments industry. Businesses’ ceaseless pursuit of ever-increasing performance and productivity creates a demand for greater utility from these instruments. As the costs of core technologies go down, manufacturers thus have an opportunity to serve a much broader base of users. But first they’ll have to take cues and technologies from consumer markets in order to deliver the value and experiences required to capture that broader market.
Over the course of the last two decades, a host of sophisticated testing technologies has made its way out of the lab and into the field: X-ray fluorescence, spectroscopy, thermal imaging, high-resolution CCDs, ultrasound, and many others have been shrunk, cost-reduced, and power-budgeted to the point where they don’t sit in big boxes on the lab bench anymore. When I got into the industry seven years ago, you could hardly buy a thermal camera for less than $10,000. Today, DeWalt makes an $800 model for home inspectors. My firm, Altitude, recently completed a project with Thermo Fisher Scientific to integrate sophisticated X-ray fluorescence technology into a product used in jewelry shops to test gold. Once the province of scientists, these sophisticated instruments are now in the hands of technicians, specialists, and engineers—and are being used on a much broader scale.
Business customers will benefit if this trend continues, since more instruments in more hands mean more timely and pertinent testing, which leads to improved results at lower costs. But as instrument manufacturers salivate over the possibilities of larger markets, they need to first realize that their formula for success must change. Here are five key ways to make it happen.
Successful instrument manufacturers got where they are by emphasizing their superior analytical performance: more precise, more pixels, more sensitivity. It made sense because that’s what specialist buyers cared about. But the new customer is a generalist—following the typical curve of technology adoption—and is more interested in business results than in an instrument’s performance.
Manufacturers must realize that they aren’t just in the instrument business anymore. They are in the solutions business: improving efficiency, reducing error rates, increasing productivity, and reducing risk. Manufacturers need to figure out what business problems their tools solve, and then design and market around them.
A few weeks ago, Justin Rosenstein wrote in this blog about building business software that people love. He spoke of the need to balance simplicity with complexity and normal users with power users. The same is true in instrument design. This new wave of users who are not highly trained will need a simpler interface—but the device still needs to perform complex analyses when required.
Digital SLR cameras are a great example of how to do this. A quick turn of a dial moves the camera from automatic to power-user mode, exposing a variety of complex features. Fluke and FLIR, the largest manufacturers of commercial thermal cameras, demonstrate another successful approach. Increasingly, their default-imaging mode is "fusion." It combines thermal imagery with familiar visible imagery, which makes the thermal data easier to interpret at a glance. But users can still dig down into hardcore analysis features if needed.
Engineering-led industrial design with boring beige boxes, monochrome LCDs, and hopelessly clunky UIs were once the standard for industrial devices, but this type of nondesign won’t cut it anymore.
A revolution in experience design is taking place in consumer markets—product companies such as Nest demonstrate that emotive design can lead to sales and profits. Some B2B product companies, including Crown Equipment, have embraced good design as a competitive advantage and have extended this thinking across their product lines.
We worked closely with Vocollect, a maker of warehouse automation equipment, to combine emotive and practical design across its product line. But many instrument companies, such as Rigaku and others, have not gotten the message.
In our research, we too often see technicians taking measurements and then jotting the results down on paper. In the age of wireless data transfer and cloud computing, this is hard to believe. While there are barriers to the use of wireless in some instruments, manufacturers can still adopt lessons from smartphones and other connected device ecosystems. For example, Ridgid, a maker of professional pipe inspection products, built Ridge Connect, a cloud-based solution that allows its users to store, analyze, and share the data collected with its instruments.
One reason why analytical instruments are disconnected is because the teams creating them are disconnected. With too many instrument manufacturers, the teams designing the product, the GUI, the PC software, and the customer service are completely separate—and rarely speak. This is no way to serve an emerging class of customers who expect the data their instruments produce to flow seamlessly into the business processes they support.
To crack open new instrument markets, it may be necessary to explore new business models. For example, TruNarc, a product Altitude helped create with Thermo Scientific, is designed to reduce errors in the narcotics evidence chain. For the first time ever, it lets cops in the field perform simple and accurate narcotics testing without risking sample contamination. Altitude and Thermo combined rugged, no-nonsense industrial design with an intuitive user interface and information architecture to create a product that police officers are comfortable using.
But police departments are notoriously sensitive to capital outlays, so Thermo introduced a pay-per-use business model that helps open up the market. As instrument manufacturers integrate more connectivity into devices, additional new business model opportunities—such as field upgrades, customized firmware, fleet management, and on-line analytics—will no doubt present themselves.
The opportunity for commercial and industrial instrument makers has never been greater. Business customers are eager to adopt increasing numbers of their products to improve productivity, increase efficiency, and reduce risk. And the technologies that will allow this to happen are improving. But to take advantage of it, manufacturers have to adopt new mindsets and take their cues from consumer products.
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