We have already reached No. 20 in our series of “Development Stories” which we started one and a half years ago. At that time, we had intended for all our developers working on different projects to each contribute an article to the series. However, even after making requests to them we sadly received no submissions. So it was left to me, as the person responsible for managing new product development, to summarize the stories behind product planning and decisions on product specifications.
This time I will be talking about a device to be used on the job site in tandem with our electronic scales and balances for easy measurement device management: the AD-1691 Weighing Device Analyzer. In order to clarify the purpose of developing this new instrument, I will first explain some of the background behind its development before I get into the main subject of the device itself.
Electronic balance technology is based upon mechatronics, a field of engineering comprised of many different elements. To be precise, it is an amalgamation of (1) mechanical technology to build the mass sensor unit, (2) electronics to achieve the high resolution of the balances, and (3) software technology, which is gaining more and more in importance. You could say these three elements balance each other in order to produce a high performance set of balances. However, recently we have reached the age where it is possible, with the purchase of a high precision electrical discharge machine (also called a wire cutting machine) or a machining center, to make copies of machine parts to a certain degree of accuracy oneself, not to mention electronic components.
What I am trying to say is that the measurement devices industry is now entering similar circumstances to those of the home electrical appliances industry. In other words, together with (1) economic globalization, Japan’s traditional strength of (2) essential component technology is flowing overseas. This essential component technology is becoming (3) black boxes, and by mass production in low-labor-cost countries, products that use those black boxes can now be produced as (4) low cost products and we are beginning to see an (5) influx of these products into the Japanese market. This means that by assembling these black boxes that constitute each component, in a similar fashion to the computer industry, anyone that can build an external case is now able to produce a commercial product in any part of the world.
These present conditions recall memories for me of when I first started my career 30 years ago. When I first started work the Japanese economy was carrying all before it and particularly in manufacturing technology Japan’s productivity was incomparable.
At the Harumi International Exhibition Center at that time, highly productive robotic equipment was the star exhibit at the trade shows there. These shows were extremely popular and many companies would be exhibiting such robots. The crowds were such that often you could only move together with a wave of people and at many times it was quite an unpleasant squash. As the years passed however, nearly all robotic manufacturers went out of business. This was a result of price wars between robotics makers, where a few companies cornered production of the essential parts, such as motors or control boards, and a similar phenomenon of production using black boxes occurred.
The robot boom of 30 years ago was mainly restricted to Japan; however you could say that we have presently entered an age where markets all move to the same standard criteria all around the world. What Japanese businesses will now have to bet their futures on is establishing creative new product planning capabilities which can create entirely new markets around the world, together with the essential component technology that will support this. That is to say, in order to survive Japanese companies will have to put their present technology and capabilities to use for innovative new product planning and development. You could also say these future strategies will have to preempt potential demand in existing markets.
To take the case of the weighing devices industry, the mass sensors of strain gauge-type load cells or analog-to-digital converters, which convert analog output from load cells to digital data, are already being sold as separate units in the market. In Asia, device makers in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, and as far away as Eastern Europe are all producing weighing machines with the same specs. Under these types of market conditions, balance makers from developed nations with more advanced technology might usually work on improving the functionality of the screen display or giving the device a more upscale appearance to continue to discriminate it from competitors’ products. That could be done by adding a large color liquid crystal display or touch panel functionality like a smartphone.
Developers would probably receive a lot of praise from sales reps for the enticing novelty factor of such new features. Most distributors in Japan and overseas, and even most of our own sales team, would probably share the opinion that we should follow this trend.
However, the requests we get from weighing device users on the job are quite simple: they want measuring to be (1) precise, (2) quick, (3) simple, and (4) low cost. If we were to focus solely on more aesthetic aspects of design, features like a fancy display would naturally lead to a larger device, more difficulty of use in the workplace and an increased price: all developments which of course would not be beneficial to users.
On the other hand, for people responsible for managing measurement devices we could speculate that introducing new management methods for weighing devices is essential due to a tightening of regulations. I am talking about people engaged in measurement work who, for example, might be responsible for the management of the production line or all the measurement devices at a pharmaceutical company, in a research and inspection company contracted to clinical laboratory tests, or have responsibility for the maintenance of measurement devices at some company. The sales team and field engineers within our own company would also fall into this category. To come to the point, there are two different viewpoints for people who work with measurement devices: those who handle them regularly in their everyday work activities, and those who are responsible for the management of such devices.
It’s an obvious point, but naturally people whose business purposes differ will also be making different demands regarding their workplace tools. People who are using measurement devices in their normal workday will want devices to simply display the measured values; people with responsibility for managing such devices will be more interested in making difficult management tasks including determining “uncertainty” easier.
Considering these points, we came to the decision that we should develop an analyzer for use with weighing devices as a tool for professionals, while keeping the configuration of the weighing devices themselves simple. To be more specific, we have developed the AD-1691, a purpose-built analyzer that can connect to all A&D scales and balances that have telecommunication functions.
For your reference, I have presented the resulting graphs of 24-hour monitoring we did with the AD-1691 (AND-MEET*) to measure the performance of our microbalance. In Fig. 1 you can see the front display panel of the AD-1691. It uses a colorful touch panel for data retrieval in an interactive fashion. In Fig. 2 you can see the readings for the microbalance’s repeatability, which averaged 2.8 µg over the 24 hour period. I won’t bother to explain all the details of the results here, but this example demonstrates how the AD-1691 can evaluate a balance’s repeatability performance while taking factors arising from the measurement environment into consideration at the same time.
The AD-1691 uses A&D’s unique Digital Signal Processing (DSP) technology, which you could think of in easy terms as a PC for specialized use with weighing devices. Using the AD-1691 it is possible to manage multiple balances. It has the functions of (1) data collection and calculations, as well as data file creation, for repeatability measurements; (2) data sharing with standard PCs using a USB flash drive; (3) determining the level of uncertainty of a balance at the location of use; and (4) presenting AND-MEET’s results in graph form. Further, there is no need for any additional software (including any special OS) when using the AD-1691 and the above functions can be performed simply by directly attaching it to the weighing device with an RS-232C transmission cable.
By using these features of the AD-1691, uniform control of multiple weighing devices can be easily achieved. It is also possible to avoid problems with connecting to computers or a lack of compatibility or uniformity with old measurement data from obsolete devices. As it has a guidance function in the interactive mode, if operator guidance is followed, the troublesome task of determining uncertainty, which involves many factors, should be able to be dealt with easily by the user on the spot.
By using this first of its kind specialist weighing device analyzer I believe significant increases in productivity can be achieved in weighing practices and it can contribute effectively to new levels of quality control.
*1 For information on AND-MEET, please refer to Development Story 12