The Future of Gas Chromatography

If you are the market leader in a mature technology segment, how do you keep innovating to meet customers’ changing needs? At a March press event at its gas chromatography (GC) headquarters in Little Falls, Delaware, Agilent Technologies presented answers to this question. Agilent is the world’s largest provider of GC systems, having introduced the first GC system more than 40 years ago. Since then, the GC market has experienced rapid growth, as the technique’s routine use has spreads to a multitude of industries and end-users, ranging from energy to food to drug development as technology advancements increased sensitivity, reproducibility and throughput.

As a mature market, GC benefits from its established position. “A high degree of maturity means that GC has been able to achieve a high level of proven reliability and effectiveness in solving many customer problems. Maturity also means that many validated methods (many through agencies defining regulations—e.g., the EPA, or certification—e.g., ASTM) have been developed and are readily available for use,” explained Eric Denoyer, marketing director of Agilent’s Gas Phase Solution Division. “Maturity also means that our customers have come to depend on GC to deliver on their business commitments, and on Agilent to deliver the quality they need to continue their success. All of this is good for both Agilent and our customers.”  But the evolution of GC has not stopped, according to Mr. Denoyer. “However, even though GC has reached a high degree of maturity, Agilent still believes there is a long runway for innovation ahead, especially in the area of user experience and in designing intelligent user-assistance functionality.”

“While lab managers’ challenges remain the same, the impact of not effectively meeting those challenges has grown significantly.”

It is these functions that figure prominently in Agilent’s latest GC system introductions, starting with the Intuvo 9000 in 2016, and continuing with the debut last month of the 8890 and 8860 GCs. Built upon a new electronic architecture, the systems are designed to meet the changing needs of laboratories, including new demands for lab instrument efficiency, uptime and training. “While lab managers’ challenges remain the same, the impact of not effectively meeting those challenges has grown significantly,” explained Mr. Denoyer. “Technological advances have made the competitive landscape of our customers much steeper, while globalization has made their competitive landscape broader.” Among these changes is a wider deployment of GC systems—for example, in multiple labs at the same facility or on an offshore oil drilling platform. “In decades past, lab managers could drive efficiency gains firsthand, in their local facility. Today, lab managers are often required to drive efficiency gains in remote locations without the advantage of proximity,” he added.

One answer to these challenges is easier and continuous monitoring of GCs remotely. To meet these needs, Agilent’s newest GC systems feature remote system evaluation and reporting, which can ensure quality control and allow lab managers to respond to instrument issues without being onsite. Another answer is making systems easier for staff to use. Features for this include automatic recognition and configuration of GC components, and what the company calls “smart consumables” for tracking usage rates and maintenance needs.

Such features also address downtime, one of the greatest needs in today’s lab, even more so than in the past, according to Agilent. “In the past, it was one thing to decrease downtime, but today lab managers also need to decrease ‘unplanned’ downtime, so they can confidently meet their commitments on time,” said Mr. Denoyer. “Increased globalization and growing interdependence of supply chains make the impact of not meeting a commitment ripple throughout the supply chain more than ever before. Also, the impact of neglecting to deliver a result can mean rapid catastrophe, for example, with a globalized food chain, especially in the shadow of increasing terrorism.”

“Training must happen more often and at many more levels than in the past.”

The new capabilities of Agilent’s GC system are also designed to meet another growing laboratory need: staff development. “The demographics of the lab workforce have changed from the past. As in so many other industries, the workforce is aging and turning over more rapidly. Labs can no longer afford—nor do they need—to hire advanced-degree experts. Training must happen more often and at many more levels than in the past,” stated Mr. Denoyer. “And if lab staff is not developed and given opportunities, the likelihood of losing staff to the competition is greater than ever before—especially as today’s workforce becomes more mobile, changing employers more often.”

All of these features can also better meet the future needs of GC users. “Building sufficient processing power onboard the instrument itself not only allows us to provide today’s intelligent functions, but to expand those functions in the future through upgrades,” noted Mr. Denoyer. “Today’s consumer is becoming accustomed to smart technologies in many consumer products, and with the concept of continuous upgrading to new capabilities and improved performance. This is expected to only increase in the future.” This also includes the upgrade of existing systems. “It is Agilent’s strategy to strive to make new intelligent functions available on previously installed Intuvo 9000, 8890 and 8860 GC systems well into the future. For example, we are making our new Chromatographic Evaluation intelligent functions available on earlier Intuvo systems as an upgrade.” These functions include automatic blank evaluation and detector evaluation to improve system readiness.

However, capabilities vary by system. “We have now powered all our lab GCs with processors that enable system monitoring, troubleshooting and connectivity,” explained Mr. Denoyer. “We aspire to provide as much functionality in each of our systems, but because of some physical differences of each of the systems, we cannot always provide every feature on every GC.” Beyond GC, these capabilities are being applied across Agilent’s instrument portfolio. “It is fair to say that driving intelligent functions for instruments is considered a core strategy throughout Agilent, and already many instruments from spectroscopy, liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry are also providing intelligent functionality,” he added.

Two focus areas of Agilent to meet these changes in labs’ informatics demand are cloud computing and user experience.

System capabilities are only part of the story, emphasized Agilent, as they are integrated with informatics and service to create what the company calls a “GC ecosystem.” As described by Shawn Anderson, senior director of Marketing for Agilent’s Software & Informatics Division, the GCs must fit into a new lab informatics environment that is increasingly data centric—for example, one of shared, accessible data and unidirectional workflows. Two focus areas of Agilent to meet these changes in labs’ informatics demand are cloud computing and user experience. The company is continually expanding its cloud offerings, capitalizing on unique capabilities such as data consolidation and recovery. Mr. Anderson noted that not all labs need the same cloud capabilities. While the OpenLab CDS (chromatography data system) Cloud Solutions provides an enterprise solution, smaller labs may also want the same capabilities. In March, the company launched the Amazon Cloud “Quick Connect” Storage Option for its CDS and ECM (enterprise content management), as part of its CDS 2.4 and EM XT 2.4 releases, for fast GC data storage and further options for labs of non-enterprise users.

Working to improve the GC experience and meeting GC customer needs, in addition to system hardware and informatics, involves service. At the start of the year, Agilent began introducing its CrossLab Connect services, part of its range of CrossLab service offerings, such as asset management and multi-vendor services. CrossLab Connect offers new instrument monitoring services and expands the role that services can play in the lab. Another example of the new role is Agilent’s PC-based Smart Alerts for GC and GC/MS, available on the 8890 and 8860 GCs, which sends an email, or other choice of format, notifying uses of preventative maintenance needs and technical recommendations.

The growing service portfolio also highlights the changing role of service engineers. “Our service engineers have always had deep expertise in our instrumentation and software,” noted Kristin Griffin, vice president and general manager, Services and Support Division, for Agilent. “What has changed are the challenges in the lab—there is a larger focus on productivity and uptime across their asset base, so Agilent also provides multi-vendor services, applications consulting and educational services.” She added, “Our service engineers look broadly to provide insights for customers that help them meet their specific scientific and business challenges.”

Even though GC is an established analytical technology, the ability of labs to more effectively employ it is ongoing. As Ms. Griffin put it, “Agilent is changing as customers are changing.”

For further information on the GC market, including market data and vendor share, SDi’s 2019 Global Assessment Report: The Analytical and Life Science Instrumentation Industry is now available. Click here to learn more.