Infrared Spectroscopy has been a mainstay of chemistry since the 1960's when the first commercial FT-IR spectrometers became available and new Fourier Transform algorithms were developed. Specac were one of the first pioneers of this new technology, starting operations in the early seventies, and have now grown to become one of the most reliable manufacturers in the FT-IR space.
We spoke to David Smith. Managing Director of Specac, on their diamond anniversary, about how FT-IR has developed since the company began, the new technologies Specac are working on and the company’s plans for the future.
How has the FTIR landscape changed over Specac's forty-five years of operation?
Since Specac began operating the FT-IR space has changed a lot, but a lot of things have also stayed the same.
A lot of the technology has changed. The instruments have developed incrementally over those forty-five years. Forty-five years ago FT-IR spectrometers were large, awkward machines that filled a room and you can now have instrumentation that fits on your benchtop.
There has been a trend to make FT-IR instruments increasingly smaller, however this trend appears to have levelled off. Instead, there is a need for instruments tailored for the level of research they are to be used in – ranging from high-specification instruments for high-end research to entry-level, plug-and-play instruments.
The way that manufacturers operate has changed even in the last ten years. They have gone from only supplying their own instruments to integrating accessories, either their own or a third party’s, into the instrument at first fit. At Specac we have started working closely with the big OEMs to make sure that, together, we’re providing the best solution for our customers.
Having said all that, we have been making accessories for forty-five years and we’re still selling some of our older accessories, and they've barely changed. The FT-IR space is quite a traditional, slow moving area with respect to changes of methods.
We have to deal with both the dynamic and the static parts of the market because we have to deal with those that are more cautious and traditional, and want what we've always produced whilst also finding new people who want different things.
Shutterstock | Elesey
How have you responded to these changes in the marketplace? How do you ensure that Specac stays ahead of the curve?
I think it's fair to say that over the first thirty-five years as a company we were quite conservative and traditional, we produced accessories which were for your textbook scientist.
What we've realized over the last ten years is that we should be reaching out to a wider range of researchers. From highly specialized scientists to lower end lab technicians. To cater for the latter we must also provide accessories of a lower specification, with no reduction in their quality, which suits the skill level of any researcher.
A good example of this is with our ATR accessories. Traditionally, scientists would take the front cover off one of our systems and then reconfigure the mirrors to optimize the alignment and throughput for their particular application.
However recently, we’ve found researchers have very little interest in going inside the machine. Researchers who work in multi-disciplinary fields want their equipment to work optimally without having to fiddle with the inner workings, which is why we provide plug-and-play accessories which have no requirement for researchers to optimize them.
We live in a world where people expect things to work as soon as they get out of the box and we have responded to that. We also appreciate that FT-IR is a complementary technique, used alongside other characterization methods such as GC and IC-MS to provide richer data.
We want to make it as easy as possible for scientists to access the extra information FT-IR can bring to their research.
The Quest ATR accessory range from Specac
You have recently launched your new liquid transmission FTIR accessory, the Pearl. What problems was the Pearl developed to address?
Most people seeing this, reading this will be familiar with the traditional liquid transmission accessory that Specac have offered for thirty years; the Omni Cell.
The Omni Cell consists of a transmission cell, sitting between two vertical metal plates, in the beam of an IR instrument. They are quite difficult to use, requiring quite a level of skill to assemble them consistently and clean them without breaking them. On top of this they also rely on consumable spare parts and they're slow.
The Pearl was designed to solve these issues, even if it was cannibalizing some of our existing business. The Pearl was designed to be a significantly easier to use and quicker accessory with the same results as the traditional liquid cell. It’s more of an investment; people can get the same results but they're saving time and money.
We've also discovered some things as we've gone through the design process. We noticed that the design of the Pearl, with the oyster cell inside, has given customers an opportunity to have a more accurate path length and greater repeatability in their experiments than they have had before.
It is there to make life easier. In this world, where things need to be done quickly, there isn't the time to set up Omni Cell experiments. We have to provide something that can work quickly.
Following the release of the Pearl we have realised that its application range is far wider than we originally thought. The Pearl has been making a big splash in the fields of oil analysis, such as automotive oils and edible oils, but also greases, chocolate, milk ... There are areas of application now for the Pearl that were not really open using the old technology.
The best thing about the Pearl is that the Pearl is not only easier to use but that it also allows the use of FT-IR in application areas which need fast and reliable results.
The Pearl has made a big impact in the field of oil analysis
Which of your other technologies do you think has delivered the most for researchers?
I think there are a couple of answers to that. If you broadly accept that researchers are looking for higher-end specification accessories, over the history of Specac I think the most important development was the Golden Gate which was launched in 1994. It was the first single bounce diamond ATR product. We were the first to release an easy to use, single bounce FT-IR device and it was the market leader for a long, long time.
I think we've been instrumental as a business in bringing forth market-leading analysis equipment which makes the life of researchers easier and gives them quality results in a practical way; as opposed to the traditional methods they had been using.
However, the Golden Gate is high-specification and represents a significant investment. To address this we then created the Quest, which is designed for routine analysis.
The Quest is also a high-quality, single bounce diamond ATR system, but is at an entry-level. The Quest has also gone on to become a market leader, and its ease of use means it is used by a much broader range of people. Whilst it is suitable for high-grade research it is also suitable at the other end of the market; in industrial laboratories and in universities for routine analyses at the undergraduate level.
The Golden Gate ATR from Specac
Do you expect to expand into new markets as the reach and portfolio of Specac continues to grow?
Yes and no. We are looking ahead. We have big ambitions to grow our business. There is still plenty of space for us to grow. I firmly believe that for every ten people that know Specac, trust Specac and like to work with Specac, there are another hundred people who've never heard of us.
There are almost limitless areas of growth, with more potential customers all over the world. We are looking at moving into other adjacent techniques and we are open to the possibility of moving into different techniques such as UV-Vis and Near-IR. We want to explore developing techniques which use similar skills and apparatus to what we already do and we want to use our knowledge to develop new products in those areas.
We're also looking vertically, should we be doing very application specific mini-spectrometers? We have a lot of ideas going in a lot of directions. Should we be looking at in-line spectrometry? mobile spectrometry? handheld? These are things that other people have looked at before and they're on our radar to look at as well.
As we have these ambitions to grow, we will inevitably expand the areas we're working in because there may be limited growth for us within the narrower range of the mid-infrared.
Specac's workshop in Kent, England
What do you believe are key drivers behind Specac's success?
We've grown substantially in the last six years following a tough time during the global economic down turn. We've done this with three things really.
One, is by focusing on our relationships with key customers. We have to recognize that the key customers, in the most part for us, are the instrument manufacturers, the six or seven companies that dominate our industry, the infrared industry especially. We’ve worked very hard to work with those people all over the world.
Secondly, we focused a lot of effort into emerging nations especially China, India, Singapore, the rest of the Far East and also Europe, which is our traditional strong base. We've spent a lot of time traveling visiting trade shows, meeting people, giving awareness sessions to our customers on our products. That has been a huge driver for us, meeting people, finding key partners in those parts of the world.
But the biggest thing, the thing that has made the biggest difference to us is innovation. The company that I joined ten years ago had a great reputation for innovation but it had waned somewhat; the company had not done as much innovating as was necessary. We've changed that round. We've brought some real big hitters to market in the last five, six years, some in our traditional sample analysis area but also in the sample preparation area.
Our new products now represent half of our sales. Half of our sales now are things that weren't in the market five, six years ago. I believe that we've regained our reputation as true innovators. We want to keep on developing a fluid and flexible portfolio of products that meet the needs of our customers.
In a crowded market place it can be difficult to get noticed. Why do you believe researchers and OEMs choose to use your products?
It goes back to the theme that's been running through this talk about traditional and modern.
At the research end there is clearly a traditional set of lab managers and researchers who are familiar with Specac. They trust us because we have a strong reputation for high specification, high quality products. We have a remarkably low number of warranty returns because we manufacture everything in-house in the UK and we take great responsibility in ensuring everything is done correctly.
We have a great reputation for quality, meaning people can trust that we have products that require only minimal maintenance and don't have to be sent back to be repaired. I think that builds a high level of trust with people.
I think we’ve also known for our great design. I know this sounds a little patriotic but there is great value in Great British engineering and I think value is recognised all over the world. I've been fortunate enough to travel the world in the last seven, eight years and everywhere I go there is great value placed upon British engineering. It is still seen, in many ways, to lead the world.
Specac manufacture all of their accessories in the UK
Where are you seeing Specac being by the time of your Golden (50th ) and your diamond (60th) anniversaries?
We're going to be bigger. By those anniversaries we want to have doubled in size, twice. There are no limits to our ambition as a company.
We want to grow not just because we want to be a bigger business, but we want grow because we are providing great products for people and are assisting scientists in their research. A lot of the instruments we developed are being used for important developments and we want to be part of that.
Behind that there are two fundamental things. The thing that we strive to get absolutely right is customer service. We are nothing if our customer service is poor.
We strive all the time for excellence in customer service and we're learning all the time how to develop that. For instance, we've just opened up a new office in the U.S.A. so we can provide much better cover to the U.S.A. If, you imagine, from the UK we're trying to support a customer in California, they're pretty much on a different day to us; daytime here is night-time there and we want to make sure we’re always available to help.
More important than that, even though we want to double in size twice, there is no limit. As a business we want to stay much the same as we are, just bigger. Your readers may be aware that a year ago we left the Smith's Group following twenty years of their ownership. We're now in private ownership following a management buy-out.
We are an independent business once more and that suits us. As we get bigger we still want to retain the small business approach that we have. It's not an amateur approach, but more the feel of a family run business. We don't want big company processes because that's not the kind of company we are. We want to be flexible, fluid and able to react to opportunities as they emerge.
I hope and I believe that, for as long as I'm involved in the company, we will grow but keep the same approaches to the way we're working with people, which is based upon ethical ways of working, looking after our customers and our staff.
We have a great team. We've grown our staff significantly just in the last year since we left the Smith's Group. We have a strong team across our business, right from finance and other support teams to our commercial staff, our design and our production team. It's a team effort. None of the success we have had could have happened without the strong team that we have.
Where can our readers find out more about Specac?
The more obvious answer for that is our website.
We’re continually adapting for the digital world. We're publishing a lot of online application notes that are of real interest to people, helping them to unlock the features and benefits of our products. We’re also trying to engage with people in new ways. We're creating video after video, plus animations, of our products to show the world what we do.
We're also working on videos for preventative maintenance on our products. We want customers to be able to keep their accessory running by carrying out maintenance themselves. Keep an eye on our YouTube page to see the current videos we have and all of the videos we have planned for the future.
About David Smith
David Smith has been Managing Director of Specac since 2008. With a background in Management Accountancy, David has spent most of his career working for SME manufacturing companies in the food and beverage as well as electronics sectors.
He has advised the UK government on the challenges facing SMEs and is a passionate supporter of the drive to grow British exports. David is also a member of the Management Committee of Gambica, the UK Trade Association for Instrumentation, Control, Automation and Laboratory Technology.
David was also part of the Management Buy-out of Specac from Smiths Group PLC in April 2015.
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