Simply Complex

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-By John Boley

Talking to us on a day when the Aussie dollar closed in on a record high, we might have expected Ron Grey to be a little grumpy. After all, 95 percent of the output of his company GBC Scientific Equipment Pty Ltd is for export. But he turned out to be surprisingly sanguine about business and prospects.

GBC designs, manufactures and markets a range of scientific instruments. It is a major manufacturer of analytical instruments including the fifth-Generation Atomic Absorption Spectrometer (AAS), fourth-Generation Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectrometer (ICP-OES), third-generation UV-visible spectrophotometers, second-generation ICP-oTOFMS, HPLC, XRD and rheometer systems.

GBC has been the recipient of many international export awards. Worldwide, the company, which was established in 1978, is represented by distributors in more than 100 countries. More than 30 years after its inception, Ron says, GBC is “renowned in the elemental analysis field as a result of its successful portfolio. The company is now leading the world in instrument development.”

Business is growing along with the mining boom and markets such as the Middle East have “been good for us recently, although current events give us some cause for concern.

“Our biggest problem is that we are an Australian manufacturer and we sell in US dollars which is what is used throughout the industry. The problem of the high Australian dollar directly affects our margin. When the dollar was at 70 cents, which is considered fair value, we had 30 percent more margin. Our reaction has been to establish an operation in Malaysia and this now manufactures all our AA line.

“At the end of the day, people like to buy Australian when they can. But the reality is that most of these products are not made in Australia.” A good example, according to Ron, is a “prominent new product” that he says purports to be built in the UK although it is really put together in China. “The fact is that no one makes white goods in Australia anymore and we have to look at our cost base too.”

Now it gets technical. “We still make our ICP orthogonal time-of-flight mass spectroscope (TOF MS) range in Australia. It’s the only MS of its type on the market and its chief advantage is that it’s simultaneous – all the others are sequential. It’s an expensive product, but a very good product and it has all sorts of advantages over all the other methods of elemental analysis. The key one is it’s instantaneous; it takes 30,000 measurements per second on every mass and every isotope, so basically in less than 45 seconds we can give you every element, every isotope, and that includes the sample introduction, the floss time, stabilisation time – it’s a massively capable analysis tool and we make it in Australia. Oh, and we designed it in Australia too.”

Of course at this level of technology, the market is a very narrow one. “It’s a very highly specialised field – ICPMS – in our case the same as an ICP in that you have an inductively coupled plasma, which is an electronic flame burning in argon. This burns at about the same temperature as the surface of the sun, that’s the sample introduction system, which takes a liquid sample and converts it into ions. We then inject that into a time-of-flight mass spec – that gives all the ions an equal kick in one direction.

“The heavy ones go slower, the light ones go faster. The fastest ones to get to the detector are the lightest ones, i.e. hydrogen; the heaviest ones are slowest to the detector, i.e. uranium; and all the other ones come in between. So the time of arrival of those ions defines what they are, and the height of the peak at the time of arrival defines how much there is.

It is, says Ron, “a very simple technology in concept. But it’s very complicated in execution.”

Apart from mining and resources, there is a very wide variety of uses for such technology. There’s the water industry, for example. “It’s a big industry for all these technologies. Nearly every municipality with a water board has to have regulatory control of water – you’re not allowed to poison people,” says Ron drily. Not in Australia, at any rate. “Well, lots of other countries are coming to the same conclusions”. There’s also pollution control. “All sorts of industrial plants need to monitor their effluents. On top of that you have medical applications and even the nuclear industry: because our time-of-flight measures all the isotopes you can determine if something has had any nuclear work done at all – instantly. If you pick up any non naturally-occurring elements you know it’s come out of the reactor.”

Some time ago, GBC teamed up with another company that specialises in laser ablation, a form of analysis of considerable use in mining. This is another simple concept, according to Ron. “Strike a spot with a laser, evaporate a small amount of the material and analyse it – because we can do that at 30,000 times a second we can achieve a true simultaneous analysis of the plume [of gas that comes off when the laser strikes the object].

“We have one application where we are analysing ancient tapestries and vases – we can determine where the clay in a particular vase came from because of the elemental isotopic makeup of that region.”

Away from the science, Ron Grey assesses the company and its future. “As a businessman, I am both optimistic and pessimistic. Optimistic in that we are in some sort of correction and have been for the last couple of years, and the stock market has come up.” There are also some negative signs, such as the marked drop in the US housing market. “But the good news for me is that the business I am in seems to have stabilised quite well. The big effect for us is the value of the Australian currency and that is determined by the level of commodity pricing and interest rates in Australia compared to those in other major currencies.

“All in all, the day-to-day isn’t so bad.” Which, all things considered, is a fairly cheerful analysis.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

November 21, 2018, 3:45 AM AEDT