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Hand-Held HPLC Controller Prototype and Feasibility Study

Project Overview
For this project, L’Monte was asked to evaluate the technical feasibility of a hand-held, high-resolution liquid chromatography (HPLC) controller. The specification for this proposed product required that the controller manage two high pressure pumps, a proprietary chromatographic interface module, a variety of sample injection devices, fraction collectors and similar equipment used for chromatographic separations. The controller was to be easily programmable using a touch screen and a simple command set and was to allow the user to create, store, retrieve and run chromatographic methods using various combinations of equipment attached to the controller and interface modules.

The controller was to communicate with the various attached devices through a combination of a standard RS-232 serial line and a number of special purpose signal lines running through the interface module. Above all, the fixed costs for the controller had to be kept very low as this was intended to be low-end market device.

From the outset, this was to be an exploratory project whose principal goal was to determine the technical feasibility of creating such a controller running on an inexpensive hand-held computer. The second objective of the project, once a working prototype was available, was to use the prototype as a tool to explore marketing venues for the project. In addition to contracting for the prototype creation as such, L’Monte also took on responsibility for market research using online databases then available.

Software Design and Methodology
From the outset, this was a high-risk project. No one knew if enough features could be added to a low-end, hand-held controller to create a system with enough functionality and ease of use to be a successful product. The first step was to identify the minimum set of desired features, map these to a basic command set and create a user interface design compatible with the touch screen devices then available.

L’Monte then surveyed the available hand-held computers and selected one that appeared most likely to satisfy all constraints such as unit cost, screen size and maximum memory. Selection of the best hand-held candidate thus allowed us to quantify the hardware constraint picture.

Because of the many uncertainties in this project, we selected a spiral lifecycle development model. The major significance of this model is that at each turn of the spiral, when a delivery was made, a risk-benefit analysis was performed for the project. It was understood that a possible outcome of the analysis would be a determination that the remaining risks outweighed the potential gain and the project would be cancelled. Thus the method kept project team members focused on risk management.

Project Outcome
The early deliverables for the project were encouraging in that they implied that sufficient functionality and usability would, in fact, be possible given the unit cost constraints for the product. However, by the sixth milestone, integration issues began to arise which made it clear that controller memory constraints would probably prevent all of the required features from being implemented.

Although we were aware of this possibility early in the project, it was not possible to determine this until a sufficient number of subsystems were in place. On the basis of the risk-benefit analysis for the sixth delivery, we helped the client determine that further product development was not necessary. A decision was made to cancel the project.