Instrumentation: Product development in the pH market

A new article by Nikolai Pitchforth and offered by Frost & Sullivan discusses how far the pH meter has come.

By Nikolai Pitchforth, Research Analyst
Environmental Health and Safety, U.S.

April 23, 2001—Dr. Arnold Beckman commercialized the pH meter soon after he invented it in 1934. The instrument, initially called an acidimeter, was originally designed to measure the acidity of lemon juice at a friend's California citrus processing plant, but it has since become one of the most commonly used pieces of scientific equipment in industrial facilities around the world.

Beckman did not invent electrochemistry, but he was the first to combine knowledge of chemistry and electronics to design a self-contained instrument that could be operated without highly sophisticated technical skills. His innovation was a huge leap forward from the color charts previously relied upon by industry to measure acidity, and the fundamental method of pH measurement has not changed since.

Other technology-based products have changed beyond recognition in the last 67 years, so why not pH meters? The simple answer is that an instrument like Dr. Beckman's works very well in most applications, with a few minor changes. In fact, fundamentally different instruments such as those utilizing fiber-optic or semiconductor based sensors have been researched and developed, but the majority of users are satisfied with their Beckmanesque instruments and the reaction to these alternative products has been one of indifference from all but a few niche-market end-users.

While demand for entirely new ways of measuring pH is weak and almost all users are happy with the performance of their 'modern acidimeters', product designers are kept busy for another reason: finding ways to differentiate their product from a multitude of competing instruments.

Thus, in the market for pH instrumentation, product development is as much a marketing issue as it is a technology issue. In a market where the similarities between competing products far outnumber differences, every distinction matters. This is immediately obvious in the advertising materials distributed by instrumentation suppliers that promote products with the uninspiring enticement of a "Large Display!" or "Dustproof Housing!"

Admittedly there are many other features advertised in the promotional literature, but the extent to which vendors attempt to differentiate their high-tech instruments on the basis of such mundane features indicates the struggle they face in a market nearing commoditization. Computers are sensitive instruments also but would Compaq advertise "dustproof housing" as one of the major features of its latest laptop computer? I think not.

While some standard features are regularly talked-up for the sake of product promotion, and new trademarks are attached to an ever-expanding array of only vaguely different features, some product improvements do genuinely set one instrument apart from another. Other manufacturers always race to close the gap of course, but in the past such innovations have included the first microprocessor-based instrument, the first portable multi-parameter instrument, and the first networked instruments.

It is never certain which manufacturer will release the next significant innovation, but trends do emerge that can indicate the type of innovation, since this is guided by demand. In the early days of electrochemical pH measurement, major concerns included accuracy and the stability of the glass electrodes. In the 1950's pH/ISE (Ion-Selective Electrode) sensors gave users a way to measure the activity of sodium, potassium and other ions along with the hydrogen ions that the pH scale measures. Later users sought memory functions, automatic temperature compensation and other features.

By gauging demand trends now, it is possible to guess at the important technical innovations of the future. For most applications products with adequate measurement ranges and sensitivity are readily available. Increasingly the focus of end-users is towards ease-of-use rather than accuracy. Features such as touch-screen controls and one-touch calibration make instruments simpler and faster to use, while minimizing operator error. With labor costs rising in the U.S., facility operators are turning to instruments that are less time consuming to operate and suitable for use by less skilled staff.

Ease-of-maintenance is equally as important, and instruments that can be operated and maintained in a simple fashion will find greater acceptance among users than their more complicated counterparts. Users are willing to pay more for instruments with a straightforward interface, low maintenance requirement and fast and simple testing procedure. The next significant pH instrument innovation will be achieved with this in mind.

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