Despite operating in a much smaller market than their consumer electronic counterparts, manufacturers of gas and vapor detection equipment have pursued many of the same goals--to make products that are smaller, lighter, easier to use and that offer more functionality. And, again like this broader market, they are selling more sophisticated products for less money.
"Price competition between manufacturers has really led to a bargain for end-user customers," observes Bob Henderson, secretary of the American Industrial Hygiene Association's Gas & Vapor Detection Systems Committee. "Ten years ago, the average price of a confined space detector was on the high side of $2,000. Today, the list price of the most commonly sold brands is around $600-800 and there are a few even less expensive than that."
That money also buys you "less," but only less in the sense of size and weight. Instrument manufacturers have responded to users' desires to have more compact, lighter instruments. "In comparison to 5 years ago, units are at least half the size and half the weight, if not more," said Dan Hirsh, the gas detection business unit manager with Draeger Safety, Pittsburgh. He said advances in electronics, as well as newer battery technologies, have helped shrink instruments.
While the ubiquitous four-gas monitor dominates the portable instrument market, manufacturers are offering an increasing array of even more versatile instruments, such as four-gas plus photoionization detector (PID) units. "Whereas in the past you might buy an instrument for one specified duty, for instance confined space entry, today, given the increased flexibility of the instruments, they will be used for a variety of applications," said Henderson, vice president of product development for BW Technologies Ltd., Calgary. This trend is driven by a continuing concern for measuring volatile organic compounds (VOCs), he explained, as well as a desire to have instruments that can be used in emergency response situations.
More flexible instruments also come in response to the demands of workplaces where a larger number of employees may be performing some monitoring function and training time is precious. Draeger's Hirsh said switch-able sensors allow workers to perform a variety of jobs with one instrument. And for the safety manager who has to train multiple workers, one instrument offers an important advantage. "If one employee needs an [H.sub.2]S monitor, another needs a combustible gas monitor and a third needs an [O.sub.2] monitor, instead of buying three single-gas units, I can buy one instrument and train all three employees the same way," he said. "If they switch jobs, they are using the same piece of equipment, so it makes my job as safety manager a lot easier."
Monitoring for the Masses
If gas and vapor monitors were once esoteric devices that existed largely in the realm of specialists such as industrial hygienists, changes in the workplace have put instruments in the hands of many more workers. Falling sensor prices and concerns about liability have combined to make monitors for the masses a reality. For example, said Hirsh, at a large chemical plant or refinery, hundreds of workers may be equipped with monitors. "If I have to arm 300 people with gas monitors, I am going to get something that is cheap and simple," he noted.
Likening the situation to buying a car, Hirsh said employees in today's lean manufacturing environments are no more likely to read through a manual in order to use an instrument than they are to read their automobile's operating manual. Because many monitors have fairly similar operating controls and those controls are greatly simplified, employees can pick them up and begin using them in short order. And manufacturers have responded by also making training material available in more accessible formats such as computer-based training …