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Story 8: Development of the Top-Loader Type Analytical Balance

  • HR Series
July 20, 2010
Development of the Top-Loader Type Analytical Balance
(Top-loader type analytical balance: HR Series)
Naoto Izumo
R&D Division 5, A&D Company, Limited

In this installment, I would like to summarize the development of the HR Series of analytical balances, which occurred 17 years ago. The main focus will be on top loaders and new projects.

The HR Series is A&D’s first analytical balance with the same construction as a general-purpose balance. This development story starts about 20 years ago, just after I joined A&D. During the development of this new product, I experienced success and failure and learned many important lessons. The following are the events that occurred during this development.

In the balance industry, balances with a minimum display lower than 0.1 mg are called analytical balances. Nowadays, top-loader analytical balances make up a majority of the analytical balance market and can be considered the mainstream type. However, top-loader analytical balances had just made their first appearance when we developed the HR Series. As the name “top loader” implies, these balances have a weighing pan on their top surface. The term has become an industry term for current general-purpose pan balances.

When I joined A&D, the structure of general-purpose and analytical balances were clearly different. Most general-purpose balances were top-loader models. Meanwhile, analytical balances had a breeze break in front and a large weighing sensor in back. Stretching from this sensor area in the back to the breeze break (the weighing chamber) was an arm, which held the weighing platform on its tip. At the time, all analytical balances were built like this, and the industry took it for granted that analytical balances had this kind of structure. This was around the end of Japan’s economic bubble and when I had taken charge of and finished development of a general-purpose balance series, which is the HX Series, for the first time right after joining the company. The HX Series was a multi-function device. It used finite-element magnetic field analysis software that I had created and it had been newly designed from the magnetic circuit. I was proud of my work. However, its extravagant specifications and attendant high prices doomed it to failure. It sold poorly outside of automatic units for production lines, where it was praised for its quick response.

While the economy of the time is a factor in whether a product is successful, spending over 2 years and 100 million yen to create a product I was really proud of and having it not sell was quite troubling. Fortunately, the HX Series contained the HX-100 model, which had a capacity and minimum display of 100 g and 0.1 mg. At the time, it was rare for a top-loader analytic balance to have a capacity of 100 g. The fact that the development of the series produced a model with specifications of 100 g × 0.1 mg was evidence that the HX Series was of high quality. This experience, along with a review of our desire to make a sellable product based on the weighing sensor I spent so long developing, resulted in the idea of making a full-fledged series of analytical balances along the lines of the HX-100.

Compared with traditional analytical balances, top loaders have half the material costs, including the sensor area. For argument’s sake, if I could get a performance level of 0.1 mg at a capacity of 200 g, which is typical of analytical balances, the top loader would be an extremely attractive product owing to its excellent cost-performance ratio.

I therefore performed testing to confirm a basic performance level of 200 g × 0.1 mg with the goal of developing an analytic balance based on the HX-100. The results determined that there was potential for a commercial product. I later had a meeting with the sales department related with the new product to present the data and propose a project for the new product. I felt that contents of my presentation showed the promise and I was sure that the project would be endorsed at the meeting. However, the reaction within the company was quite surprising to me. I was showered with negative criticism such as, “there’s no way you can make a general-purpose, top-loader type analytic balance; putting out a half-baked product would just lower our market reputation”, and “the structure of analytical balances is fixed, customers will never accept a top-loader analytic balance”. In the end, I was told to stop development on the new product.

Obviously, I was disappointed. However, I didn’t have enough experience or ability to object and publicly accepted the official decision of the meeting. Privately, I refused to stop development and continued testing behind the scenes. After a period of constant worry, things eventually turned around.

The cause for this was that our European competitors took the lead in the market and started offering top-loader analytical balances at a low price in the Japanese market. After this, people in the company who opposed the commercialization of top-loader analytical balances disappeared.

In a comparatively short time, A&D completed its first top-loader analytical balances, the HR series, and put them on the market. The HR Series gradually became known in the market for its high cost-performance ratio. While 20 years have passed since sales started and our competitors have changed all of their products to new models, the HR Series remains a strong performer, with sales of several thousand units per year.

The fact that the series has maintained its marketability for so many years is evidence of its excellent integrated ability at development, including its performance, price, and specifications. The fact that it has been a consistent seller over the years makes me feel as if the development was blessed. Later on, the GR Series of semi-micro balances, which is a top-loader model with a sensitivity of 0.01 mg, was developed based on the HR Series. Recent top-loader products have reached the microgram level using the SHS/C-SHS, a next-generation sensor.

The experience of developing the HR Series played a large role in the development progress of these new products. It is often said that project and technological ideas that are unanimously approved at meetings never succeed. This occurs because most of the people at the meeting are naturally field specialists who understand the status quo, which becomes the criteria of evaluation. At such times, new projects designed to change the status quo no surprisingly run against conventional wisdom. Naturally, when the status quo is the reference point, these new projects can come off as bizarre ideas. This phenomenon seems to happen in many aspects of life, not just business.

The number of Japanese conscious of innovation is decreasing and a long time has passed since Japan became a country of critics. As a result, the allowance for change in society is declining and there is an increased sense of stagnation. This may go beyond this discussion but if a manufacturer’s developers are not innovators, there is no way to develop new products. If the next generation of engineers maintain their personal beliefs and develop the ability to plan new products in the course of day-to-day activities, I feel that business results will improve. I also think that this will finally reinvent the stagnating Japanese economy and society.

I am placing my hopes on the good sense and great efforts of the young engineers who will lead society forward, and, in some sense, stubborn individualists.

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