12 April 2011
Benoit Neel, vp and general manager, Agilent
Graham Pitcher finds out from Agilent how the European test and measurement market is changing.
When, in 1999, Hewlett-Packard spun out a range of technology interests considered not to be core to its business, it had no idea quite what a troubled gestation period the new company would have to endure. That organisation – Agilent – not only handled test and measurement, it also offered a range of semiconductor products, medical electronics and ran a semiconductor test division.
Little did HP know that the next decade or so would prove so troublesome. Benoit Neel, vp and general manager of EMEA field operations for Agilent's electronic measurements group, said: "For 10 years, Agilent has been through a difficult restructuring process, but we are now focused entirely on measurement."
Agilent now has three strands: electronic measurement, comprising more than 50% of the business; chemical analysis; and life sciences.
Together, they generate more than $6billion a year. According to Neel, Agilent products can now 'measure anything'. Business seems to be booming; Neel pointed to a 26% growth in sales in the last quarter. "But the electronic measurement group's sales have grown by 31% in the same period," he noted, "driven by China and by the communications industry."
Neel says Europe remains important for Agilent. "Europe is now all about R&D; private and academic. And this is true for the communications and semiconductor sectors. This is good for Agilent because R&D is measurement intensive." While western Europe is not growing at the pace seen in other regions – 11% in the last quarter – Neel says the R&D base is solid. "Governments have maintained their research budgets and there are still key semiconductor companies in Europe, including STMicroelectronics and Infineon. Europe is measurement intensive because there is a lot of innovation happening here."
Agilent's electronic measurement group has a four point strategy, said Neel. "The first point is to provide high tech innovative measurement platforms, such as high end scopes, and these are natural products for researchers. Then there's applications; we want to provide coverage for all of our users. For example, at the recent Mobile World Congress, we launched our LTE Advanced portfolio.
"The third element is developing mainstream general purpose instrumentation, while the final part is equipment addressing the nanoscale, including atomic force microscopes."
Agilent takes pride in developing basic technology. Neel noted: "We do this when the technology we need doesn't exist. But we also work with standards groups in order to enhance their technology. For example, we have worked with PXI developers to develop the AXI standard, providing users with more power. This work allows us to innovate and evolve standards for the next generation."
Amongst its recent technology developments are asics and a/d converters for its oscilloscopes – even low end devices. And these parts are designed such that they can be reused. "We use the same chipset in oscilloscopes as we do in chromatographs for life science applications," Neel continued. One thing that has changed in the three decades since Neel joined the company is the pace of product development.
"When I started, the product life cycle was probably 15 to 20 years," he recalled. "Today, it's typically seven to eight years and, at the lower end of the scope sector, devices can have a commercial life of as little as six months.
"When product design cycles become as squeezed as this, reuse of technology becomes important, as evidenced by the chromatograph example. But it is equally important that customer investment is protected. "With the recently introduced 2000 and 3000 series scopes," he said, "bandwidth can be upgraded easily. And users of our spectrum analysers can upgrade the computer within the device simply by swapping a board."
Shrinking product life cycles mandate more intensive development work. Currently, Agilent spends 13% of sales revenue on R&D. "If you look at what we've done recently," Neel enthused, "you can see a range of new centres, including Bangalore and Shanghai, where we build on regional strengths."
Nevertheless, Agilent can't do all the R&D itself. "We work with technology and market leaders to develop the products they need," said Neel. "And we have agreements with leading academic institutes to work on technology development. This collaborative innovation, as we call it, makes sure that what we do makes sense for the customer."
The introduction of the 2000 and 3000 series scopes also marks a change in how Agilent relates to its customers: for this first time, its products are available through distribution. "It's a new strategy which comes from the evolution of the product portfolio to include lower cost instruments," Neel said. "We also have a channel strategy that allows us to work with companies like Microlease as Authorised Technology Partners," he claimed. "Microlease is a natural partner for Agilent and we've transferred some people to Microlease to make sure there's continuity. So far, we're delighted with the results and the level of customer satisfaction," he concluded.
Benoit Neel joined Hewlett-Packard (now Agilent) France in 1983 as a field engineer within the company's test and measurement and computer organisations. He has held various management positions within the European organisation, including general manager, support service management and major account management. Currently, Neel is leading Agilent's EMEA field operations. He earned an ingenieur technico commercial degree from Paris University in 1983.