Understanding the Testing, Inspection, Certification & Compliance (TICC) Industry – and Why That Matters
You know the old saying of “Horses for Courses”? Cambridge dictionary defines this phrase as meaning that “it is important to choose suitable people for particular activities because everyone has different skills.”
Well, this definitely applies when selecting a good outsource partner for your analytical service needs.
Covalent operates within the ~$250 billion global market for Testing, Inspection, Compliance and Certification (“TICC”). The bulk of the market is comprised of labs and field service providers offering well-defined TICC services for:
- Products: medicines and medical devices, foods and beverages, consumer products, electronics, automobiles, chips, batteries, etc.
- Infrastructure: buildings, roads, bridges, gas and electrical lines, oil pipelines, etc.
- The environment: water, air, soil.
Concerns for human health and safety dominate the TICC landscape, and regulatory players and industry associations play a major role in setting the testing protocols. Each activity – Testing, Inspection, Compliance and Certification – mandates that the service provider follow very well-defined procedures and methods. Subjectivity should be minimized when pronouncing something as “safe,” “clean,” or “healthy.” Most TICC companies are best equipped (in terms of quoting processes, staffing strategies, business models) to deal with well-defined requests, and to follow well-defined procedures.
Covalent focuses on two market segments that, while technically still part of the TICC market overall, and often using the same technical “tools of the trade,” are wholly dissimilar in nature.
- Materials imaging, characterization, and metrology in support of New Product and Technology Development, and
- Failure Analysis.
We typically support RD&E engineers working on new materials and technologies that feed into integrated products – semiconductor chips or processing tools, cellphones, batteries, cameras and sensors, electric vehicles, and similar hard-tech products leveraging advanced materials and nanotech devices.
Our customers are typically looking to gain deeper understanding of some material, component, or device, usually for one of three reasons:
- They want to better understand how the end-product works, or how a material functions (mechanisms, dependences), or
- They are looking to improve performance (however that is defined) or cost of the product the component feeds into, or
- They are trying to figure out why the product doesn’t work, or why it failed.
All of these are “why?” or “how?” questions. The answers are most usually not known, and the requisite methods and approaches are generally not prescribed.
Answering exploratory questions and solving these sorts of difficult problems are cross-disciplinary endeavors. Success relies on outstanding coordination and communication between application engineers and analytical scientists. Aspiring to build a great company in this space requires alignment of team, culture, organization (for quoting and execution), digital systems, and even the underlying business models.
An example may be useful to illustrate the challenge here. Imagine a customer who is looking to better understand the switching behavior of a metal oxide thin film being used in a display transistor (TFT-LCD). They decide they would like to better understand the bonding states of the oxide. Let’s call this the customer “Ask.”
To genuinely advance their knowledge of the material and its impact on device performance, this project depends on the effective marshalling of diverse skills, experience and expertise. At minimum, it requires:
- A generalist who can understand the Ask, can mentally map the Ask against the world of potential materials characterization strategies, and then recommend an optimal technical path forward – in this case, X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS).
- Then, the Ask is translated to an XPS expert who knows how to set up and run the system to generate the desired data to address the specific Ask.
- Proper set-up, operation and data interpretation would require specific experience in use of XPS to characterize metal oxide films.
- Someone then needs to map the interpreted results back to what that means for metal oxide properties and functional behavior – this is application-specific materials science knowledge.
- That knowledge needs to be incorporated in the broader process integration and device engineering challenge for thin film transistors.
- Which, finally and in turn, should connect to the display / product requirements (switching speed, stability and degradation, leakage, and so on).
This is a daunting task starting from a seemingly simple Ask. Very few, if any, engineers would, by themselves, be able to cover all of #1-6 . Therefore, this project is going to require effective collaboration and great communication – either across departments inside a large company, or between a customer and a third-party service provider like Covalent. In fact, the characterization strategy and the design-of-experiments creating the samples-to-be-measured really should be developed in unison to maximize “learning per cycle.” The application engineers and the analytical scientists ideally are working together as part of a coherent project, from experimental design to interpretation and discussion of next steps.
If you google labs that have XPS instruments, you will find a decent number of options. On one end of the spectrum, you will find User Facilities at certain universities. A true User Facility would require the customer to take care of #1-6 themselves, as the facility would just supply the instrument (and basic training) as well as, perhaps, access to the required analytical software.
A few universities provide expert staff to operate instruments and interpret data for customers (for example, Arizona State Eyring Materials Center and the University of Oregon / CAMCOR (links). These are great resources, and they play an important role in this ecosystem. But, private enterprises have certain advantages relative to a university facility, and these advantages are often reflected in consistency of turnaround times, tool uptimes, or staffing disruptions.
Some smaller labs with an owner / operator can provide nice data and instrument expertise. But, they are likely to require the customer to present a defined analytical request, and often are unable or unwilling to provide much help with data interpretation for the application at hand.
To my knowledge, the fullest range of analytical services in the materials science space (providing at least #1 through #3, and in certain cases #4 as well) would be provided by Covalent or our main competitor EAG. Each of us aspires to provide the high-end technical talent to connect the customer to an optimal analytical strategy (front-end quoting support), and then the high-touch assistance with data interpretation, analysis and recommended next steps.
Covalent has certain advantages, being the newcomer in the space.
- We have modern, cloud-connected instruments that enable great services like LiveView to promote real-time collaboration.
- We have invested heavily in a proprietary Digital Platform that reduces “time-to-quote,” and enables formation of virtual teams for each project. The project team, selected by the customer, includes relevant customer engineers and the relevant analytical experts and instrument operators at Covalent. This “project team” can then exchange messages and observations real-time using the chat function to improve speed and quality of communication.
- And, we have a digital solutions portal to transform the one-time, static data deliverable of other labs into a living, breathing data resource that can integrate into your overall R&D strategy (more on that next week).
Just as important as the technology investments are the business model differences. We believe that solving hard problems with excellence in analytical services requires consistent, outstanding communication and sustained collaboration. Transaction-by-transaction, sample-to-sample services are a poor way to solve complex challenges, in our view. In the long run, we believe that enterprise-level engagement models (retainers and memberships / subscriptions) provide the path to deeper and more effective partnership.
All of this is to make the argument that, while assessing an outsource analytical service provider in terms of their domain knowledge and technical expertise is a good start, assessing the fit of their team, their processes, their customer service platform, and their business model is just as important. These often over-looked characteristics of the potential partner should be carefully considered to achieve best results in the engagement.
I welcome your feedback and additional comments and look forward to hearing from you – firstname.lastname@example.org.