Change was in the air at the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry & Applied Spectroscopy (Pittcon), held earlier this month in the windy city of Chicago.
Many tool makers at the annual scientific instrument gathering said they expect strong sales in the year ahead. But they voiced concern about potential changes in tax and trade policies from the administrations of both U.S. President Donald J. Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
Other changes already under way will affect Pittcon itself. A spokesperson for the conference confirmed that beginning with the 2018 event in Orlando, Pittcon will be shortened by a day.
The exposition will go from four days to three. “The decision to go to a three-day expo was made in response to a majority request by our exhibitors over the last several years,” the spokesperson said. Likewise, Pittcon’s technical program, which typically starts on a Sunday and lasts five days, will run four days starting next year.
Pittcon also confirmed that new host cities will be added to the conference rotation. In 2030, the event will be held in San Diego, moving west of the Mississippi River for the first time. Boston will join the list of Pittcon hosts in 2025 and 2028. The city and its suburbs are home to a large number of instrument makers, including Thermo Fisher Scientific, Waters Corp., and MilliporeSigma.
Declining attendance numbers may have figured into Pittcon organizers’ decision to tinker with the formula for the event. Turnout for the conference and show peaked at 34,000 in 1996 and has been declining for years.
A preliminary count by Pittcon officials set attendance at this year’s event at 14,151. About 16,200 people attended when it was last held in Chicago, in 2014, and Atlanta attracted about 12,840 people in 2016.
Change was also afoot at several scientific instrument makers, which emphasized software initiatives instead of radical breakthroughs in new tools. At the show, Thermo Fisher announced that it had acquired Core Informatics, a fast-growing, venture-capital-backed provider of cloud-based scientific data management systems with about 100 employees.
“Their cloud-based offerings are more discovery oriented, while we already had supported quality control and quality analysis in manufacturing processes,” explained Dan Shine, analytical instruments president at Thermo Fisher. “They will integrate seamlessly into what we already have.”
Waters Corp. launched the cloud version of its Empower chromatography data management system.
Waters’ TA Instruments unit introduced several new dilatometers and thermogravimetric analyzers, but Mike Harrington, senior vice president, noted that the days are over of bowing to pressure to bring new tools to Pittcon before they are commercially ready.
He and Waters Chief Executive Officer Christopher O’Connell emphasized they would work to tailor their tools to the needs of pharmaceutical, materials, and food analysis customers. China, for instance, is increasingly focused on pharmaceutical and food quality, said O’Connell, who is counting on demand from Chinese and other overseas customers to increase business.
Like Waters, Thermo Fisher did not emphasize new product introductions. “In the past, it’s been about the box and the instrument. Now what’s important is what the instrument can do for the customer,” Shine said. At Pittcon, the firm introduced a instruments such as a Fourier transform infrared microscope for identifying particulates and contaminants in food.
However, Waters executives expressed concern about the impact of the U.K.’s pending exit from the European Union on the firm’s operations in the U.K., where it has about 1,000 employees. Waters makes its mass spectrometers in Wilmslow, England. May, the prime minister, will soon begin negotiating the so-called Brexit, which British voters approved in June 2016.
“We’re meeting with senior government officials in the U.K. so we can protect the free movement of goods and people between the U.K. and the Continent,” O’Connell said. “We don’t want to see the isolation of that economy.”
In the U.S., President Trump’s efforts to speed up the Food & Drug Administration’s drug approval process could be a positive move, O’Connell suggested. “Speeding innovation in pharmaceuticals would be good for us,” he said.
Trump, Harrington said, is talking about lowering bureaucracy, not standards. The President is also talking about lower-price drugs, which could mean increases in the volume of medicine sold. In that case, he said, Waters could see more demand for chromatography columns and instruments used in quality control.
Regarding Trump’s efforts to speed drug approval, Thermo Fisher’s Shine noted that FDA has a long history of emphasizing patient safety and is unlikely to sacrifice it for the sake of speed. On the subject of tax reform, he said Thermo Fisher could benefit should the Trump Administration succeed in lowering taxes on the repatriation of corporate profits from foreign subsidiaries.
Others were biding their time regarding the new Administration’s plans. “There’s lots of speculation about what the President plans to do. We’ll have to wait and see what comes forward,” said Jim Corbett, president of PerkinElmer’s discovery and analytical solutions business.
The business that Corbett oversees had $1.5 billion in sales last year, including revenues from equipment used in air, water, and food quality monitoring. Corbett said he is curious to see how budget cuts the President has proposed for the Environmental Protection Agency may affect those monitoring efforts.
Corbett also noted that U.K. academic institutions may be affected once Brexit negotiations are completed. Research funding that formerly came from EU programs could be hard to replace. And because PerkinElmer makes some analytical equipment in the U.K., “potential retaliatory tariffs” from EU members once Brexit is complete are also a concern, he said.
Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, the U.S. arm of the Japanese tool maker, followed the general trend among instrument makers at the show by highlighting tools focused on specific customer needs. Shimadzu debuted the Cannabis Analyzer, which it characterizes as the first-ever high-performance liquid chromatograph designed specifically for quantitative analysis of cannabinoid content by users without chromatography experience.
But even though the firm has found a relatively easy way to divine the potency of cannabis samples, it is as much in the dark about the likely effect of tax changes, government policies, and trade decisions as other instrument makers. A pullback on regulations could be negative, said Terry Adams, Shimadzu’s marketing vice president. On the other hand, such a move could free up capital that customers might invest in quality control.
Should the U.S. impose tariffs on imports, Shimadzu’s Canby, Ore., manufacturing facility could take on greater importance, Adams said. An important consideration for the Japanese firm is the percentage of an instrument’s components that can be imported for the final product to still qualify as U.S. made, he said.
Executives at Knauer, a German maker of pumps, detectors, and liquid chromatography systems, are thinking about tariff changes too. Anke Bördgen, the firm’s head of product management and marketing, explained that Knauer is a large exporter of components to U.S. tool makers. “We are worried about the impact U.S. tariffs could have on our business,” she said.
MilliporeSigma CEO Udit Batra is assessing Brexit’s potential effect on the firm’s laboratory chemicals business. “Tariffs or delays could significantly undermine” deliveries to customers, depending on the trade deal the U.K. negotiates with the EU, he said.
Other stalwarts at the show kept their noses to the grindstone and rolled out instrument advances. JEOL, which has been involved with nuclear magnetic resonance instruments for 60 years, introduced a new NMR probe, the Royal HFX. Intended for the analysis of fluorinated compounds, the probe will ease analysis of the large number of fluorine-containing drugs on the market.
Also at Pittcon was the dominant NMR player, Bruker, which touted an electron spin resonance tool. The microESR, a benchtop cousin to the much larger NMR spectrometers Bruker is known for, came to the firm with the December acquisition of California-based Active Spectrum. Useful for teaching and for polymer and petroleum analysis, the microESR is being developed for quality control and other markets, said Frank Laukien, Bruker’s CEO.
Laukien also had some observations about the tax, policy, and trade changes that were on the minds of so many instrumentation executives at the event. In time, he predicted, industry might have fewer regulations to contend with. But for now, “it’s obviously a dynamic environment,” he said. “There are so many signals and so much noise.”