If you ask me

This issue's commentators debate the research value of hugely expensive electron microscopes and consider the worth - or otherwise - of focus groups.

Money well spent

The Royal Microscopical Society recently staged the largest-ever UK conference and exhibition on microscopy, Microscience 2008. The event attracted significant press coverage, not only because of the remarkable equipment on show, but also because of the eminent line up of speakers which included Sir David King and Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto.

During the event, I was asked: "How on earth can you justify spending such huge amounts of money on electron microscopes?" My laboratory at the University of Sheffield contains equipment worth around £10m. But I believe the expenditure to be unequivocally justified. I would rather ask: "If you are not using microscopy to develop your product or process, why not?"

A new venture that I have led at Sheffield and which is funded by the European Regional Development Fund is the Sorby Nano Investigation Centre, named after Henry Sorby, a pioneer of microscopy. The centre makes our equipment available to any industrial user. But how can microscopy help local industry to increase profits, and to create jobs?

A few case studies might help persuade you that microscopy is a real asset, not just 'toys for boys'.

The first comes from a small, but highly successful local SME that manufacturers catalysts. The catalyst is platinum, with typical particle sizes of tens of nanometres. Without high-powered electron microscopes the basic features of the product could not be identified; for example, the size, location and distribution of the platinum particles. Once known, the key attributes can be mapped as a function of process route to enhance the product.

As a second example, we are working with a well-established local company who develop and supply novel pharmaceuticals for the treatment and prevention of skin diseases. Without a detailed knowledge of how skin interacts outside, the new pharmaceutical could not be produced. This does not require particularly high microscope magnifications, but does require the powerful insight brought about by Raman spectroscopy.

My third example comes from the development of new higher-performance microcontrollers. New designs constructed using computer software might not be right first time. Using the latest lithographic techniques in an electron microscope, we can remove and re-construct interconnects to make a faulty device work, rather than manufacturing again from scratch. This not only saves money, but helps reduce time to market.

I will finish by posing another question: how many new materials or complex engineering processes did not include microscopy at some point in the development?

It matters not whether it is in the 'blue skies' areas of nanotechnology, with huge potential benefits to greatly enhance the quality of life and sustainability, or whether it is simple analysis of a failed component to ensure a process is optimised, microscopy is a crucial. The techniques are hugely expensive, but the cost benefit analysis clearly shows that the investment gives a rapid return.

I wonder whether that can be said of other areas where the equipment is expensive, such as particle colliders or space exploration?

Mark Rainforth, Royal Microscopical Society
He is professor of materials science at the University of Sheffield, director of the Sorby Nano Investigation Centre and current president of the Royal Microscopical Society

What you want is what you get

Forget the embarrassment over Iraq. Forget the bungled revisions to the health and education services. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair's real legacy was that he left a nation unable to make decisions and powerless to even go to the bathroom without first consulting a focus group.

The problem with focus groups, of course, is that they lack focus. A manufacturer wanting to know what his customers are expecting from the next generation of products could not adopt a worse strategy.

There's an old joke about a lost motorist stopping to ask for directions and being told by a friendly local: "I wouldn't start from here." The reason why it is not a good idea to ask the end-user what they want, is because they simply don't know.

When I was the editor of a swanky monthly magazine in Soho, my publisher would pay inordinate sums to eavesdrop on readers discussing what was wrong with our product. As the editorial team sat behind a two-way mirror (why aren't those things called 'one-way windows?') we became more and more convinced that two, and only two, things were happening in the discussion group.

First, the dominant personality would make critical statements merely to hold centre stage. Second, the more analytical personalities, who were trying to be positive about the product, only suggested marginal improvements, in order to show that they knew what they were talking about.

At no time in a focus group have I ever heard a sentiment anywhere approaching "let's rip up the programme and start again".

In other words, the consumer doesn't know what he or she really wants, or if they do are unable to articulate it. They only know what they don't want or what they think they want. A more polite way of putting this would be to say that they have 'hidden needs'.

This is the important point that Ben Allen and Keith Goffin make in some depth in 'Process or creativity?' - their feature is included in this issue.

Of course, finding out the hidden needs of the customer and factoring them into the design cycle is only the start of the story. As Allen and Goffin go on to say, it's no good finding out what people want if you can't manufacture it.

Just about every management technique book (and I've read a quite a few) rolls out the same old tired tropes of advice. One of the most common is "listen to the customer". I've read this so many times that I wonder if the people saying it even know what this means.

I quite like the idea of not listening to the customer for once. After all, there is no logical reason to suppose that the end-user is an expert on their requirements. And there can be no reason to ever go back to those horrible and expensive focus groups that, with any luck, have disappeared with 'New' Labour.

Nick Smith, Management editor

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