The Science of Good Design

Varian is one of the world’s largest scientific instrument manufacturers and a long-standing Cobalt client. Over the last dozen years, Cobalt and Varian have developed 13 new instrument platforms using a consistent design language and innovative production processes for global manufacture and sales growth.

Varian’s diverse range of instruments cover a wide range of sciences. To ‘non-scientists’, the core principles within most scientific instruments may seem abstract and the acronyms intimidating. So it helps to think of real world applications. For example, every second of the day, somewhere in the world Varian instruments are being used to help improve our lives by monitoring our water quality (environmental science), researching cures for intractable diseases (life sciences), or helping investigators solve crimes (forensic analysis). And these are just a fraction of their applications.

More ‘multi technological’ than ‘multinational’, Varian is an IP-rich organisation headquartered in the USA but with numerous development and smart manufacturing facilities spread throughout the world.

The Australian connection

Through consistent performance, Varian’s Australia division has become the global group’s largest R&D and manufacturing site. Varian Australia’s roots go back some 70 years when Techtron Appliances was established in North Melbourne (within a stones-throw of Cobalt’s current offices). In 1957 Techtron commenced making instruments using the then new science of atomic absorption spectrometry, developed in part by the CSIRO. Since then, other technology platforms have been transferred from overseas Varian sites to Australia, where planning, design and applications development is now conducted.

One of the reasons behind this shift is Australia’s unique mix of innovative science, practical engineering and high-quality, low-volume manufacturing industries. These conditions ideally suit high-performance, high-value, niche products.

Integrated design and engineering

Cobalt is an integral part of Varian’s global instrument design team. Varian first approached Cobalt in late 1997 to undertake industrial design of their new fluorescence spectrometer the Cary Eclipse. In time, our involvement and Varian’s use of design would broaden to a much more sophisticated level, but back then our scope was firmly limited to ‘external styling’ of the predefined instrument architecture.

Since those early days, Cobalt has worked with Varian on 13 unique instrument platforms across four different sites in the US, UK and Australia. Typically our work involves studying user workflows and preferences, styling and functional development and design-engineering for manufacturing of enclosure assemblies.

More recently Cobalt has embedded our design engineers on-site, working within Varian’s R&D teams during critical development periods. This approach provides for faster development, direct communications, and two-way transfer of knowledge – crucial for continual improvement.


In addition, Cobalt has also guided Varian’s broader product design strategy. We developed a framework to define consistent yet responsive instrument form, branding and colouring. Called ‘Lighthouse’ this guide visually links an extremely diverse range of instruments. Lighthouse has been used by external design firms in Italy, The Netherlands and across the United States as well as by Varian design and engineering teams.

Varian-Agilent merger

Varian is in the process of being acquired by Agilent Technologies Inc, creating an even stronger collective scientific instrument group. The merger is an opportunity to extend Varian’s technologies and platforms across Agilent’s wider distribution and market base. Within our local (Australian) context the merger simply extends what has happened since Techtron Appliances first opened for business: Each change has forged deeper links with larger, world-focussed organisations and led to further growth. Whilst change can be disruptive, Cobalt welcomes the opportunities that inevitably change promotes.