March 26, 2013

Nervous…System Support

My last post about standardization and open source scheduling software for integrated systems got me thinking more about the post-sales support sidon knottsde of those systems.

As many of you know, systems can be very expensive so end-users are making critical decisions on behalf of their employers, both on how well their money is being spent and what are reasonable expectations as to when the system will begin to show a return on that investment.    There is always concern about that ramp up time and the problems you may encounter along the way, so the question of warranty becomes very important to the lab manager or principal user of the system.

Most system integrators go through a very similar process regardless of who the end user is.   It generally all starts with a customer needs assessment, whereby a sales mabiocelnager (usually accompanied by an Application Scientist) asks a number of questions prior  to generating a system concept proposal.   While it may seem tedious to the end-user, (I know what I want, why can’t these people just give me their quote?) this is a critical step in ensuring long term success.   I have been involved in a number of situations where a customer had budgeted hundreds of thousands of dollars but could not provide a single manual method they wanted to automate.    Not good.

Weeks (more like months) after  the system is designed/proposed and agreed upon/purchased by the customer, a date is usually scheduled for a FAT (factory acceptance test) whereby the customer visits the integrator and goes through a “buy-off” checklist prior to shipment.  This buy-off is best done with beckman systemthe actual customer methods (minus real chemistry) to ensure that the system performs as agreed upon prior to shipment.   Remember, shipment means breaking down the system and packaging so that it can be “re-integrated” yet again upon arrival at the customer site whereupon it goes through the SAT (site acceptance test) which is basically the  same buy-off as the SAT, albeit with actual chemistry.   Once completed, you get a handshake (maybe a hug if it goes really well) and “TA-DA !”you own the system.

Most integrated systems come with a one year warranty.  This can mean different things to different integrators but in my experience, entails parts and labor only (travel is nostaublit included).  It also does not include operator induced failures like crashing a robot into an instrument.  In general, most systems include a fair number of third party instruments that the integrator does not manufacture and they don’t make a lot of money providing them.   These instruments come with their own warranties (usually 1 yr) and the integrator almost always passes these on to the end-user, acting as the first point of contact if a failure occurs.   Since the instruments can often reside at the integration firm for several weeks prior to FAT,  it is important for end-users to understand their warranty…’what is covered?’, for how long?’ and ‘when does the clock start ticking (upon shipment, acceptance)?’.

As mentioned in prior posts, an extended warranty for an integrated system can often cost 10-15% of the purchase price of the system.   Some integrators offer an incentive (discount) if you purchase such an extension with they system, or prior to expiration of the standard one year warranty.   Should you choose that option?

In short, the answer is no and I will tell you why.   Let’s assume we are talking about a $350K ELISA system that includes a robot mover, bar code reader, liquid handler, plate washer, ambient storage hotels and plate reader.    Those majorbeckman systemcomponents probably account for less than 50% of the price of that system.   The remainder is comprised of  things that don’t wear or break (system tables, enclosures, scheduling software, PC and …labor).   That last one is a biggie.    Integration is hard work and proper design, build, programming and testing prior to  SAT can include hundreds of person-hours.  That is commonly referred to as NRE or non-recurring engineering.   A warranty for such a system could cost upwards of $50K, or more (not including travel) but you really should only care about the instruments…not the other stuff.

So, if you are faced with a decision regarding extending the warranty of your integratedautomateitsystem…push back.  It’s pretty easy to determine the list price for each instrument in a system and request a contract that is based on just those costs.   You could also go directly to each manufacturer and request contract pricing on their product only.   If that is too time consuming or a management hassle you don’t need, you may want to reach out to one of the major MVS (multi-vendor services) providers (ThermoPEJohnson ControlsAgilentGE) or smaller ISO (independent services organizations) like The LabSquad.

Don’t be nervous about system support…be informed.

March 22, 2013

SiLA Love Songs

Time to talogo_silake a break from talking about instrument support and wax philosophically about a bigger support challenge – integrated systems.    A colleague asked me my opinion of the SiLA, a consortium that is creating standards for lab automation instrument interfaces.

As I understand it, the folks behind SiLA have a business model that will define these interface standards and then presumably charge instrument manufactures for the privilege of claiming “SiLA Compliant,” or some such declaration.    I have to admit that my knowledge of this model is sketchy at best, and the SiLA website does not really lend much insight.

This seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse to me.  That is to say, the instrument interfaces are fairly useless without a higher level scheduling software that manages assay workflow, instrument status and data.

In the 1980′s and 90′s, there were many such products from well establishepolarad system integrators such as  RoboCon (acquired by CRS Robotics), CRS Robotics (acquired by Thermo Electron, who merged with Fisher Scientific),  Scitec (acquired by Zymark), Zymark (acquired by Caliper, who merged with Perkin Elmer) and Velocity11 (acquired by Agielnt) — do you sense a theme here?  All this M&A activity happened during the HTS and uHTS craze.  Once that goldrush ran it’s course, it became clear that system integration is difficult in a public company.   It’s hard to take a 16-20 week design/build/install model and cram in into a quarterly revenue model.  Systems needed to become smaller, more standardized and less expensive.

Nevertheless, each integration company created their own assay management and scheduling software and wrote their own libraries of instrument interfaces.  Hundreds of systemsMicrosoft.Net were installed and not a single one required the involvement of SiLA or any other instrument standard.   One common thread that enabled each of these software’s to succeed was the widespread adoption of Microsoft’s COM, OLE and eventually ActiveX  and .NET frameworks.  As long as instrument manufactures included automation “hooks” based on the MS framework, integrators had little trouble creating robust instrument interfaces.   It’s really not that complicated, as you really just need to be able to initialize, start, stop and report error status for most instruments.   Data (from readers primarily) was generally a secondary consideration and not part of the scheduling paradigm.

So flash forward a few years and there are remarkably fewer pure integration companies left.   Caliper/PE and V11/Agilent are still out there, but not perhaps as visible as they once were.   Thermo Fisher now has a more limited presence as well.   To be sure, companies like Beckman, Tecan and Hamilton still build systems but they are primarily liquid handling companies first, integrators second.   Really only HiRes Biosolutions,Process Analysis & Automation Ltd. or PAA and Hudson Robotics still fit the pure integrator definition.

It would seem to me that without an Open Source scheduler software standard, there isn’t much need for an Open Source instrument interface standard.    Each of the companies mentioned above already have significant investments in creating their device libraries.  What is the incentive for them to abandon those interfaces (many of which they charge for) in favor of the SiLA standard?   I’m not saying they wouldn’t but I’d like to hear a good business argument for it, other than fear of someone else doing it.   In fact,  I would imagine that an Open Source scheduler could exist nicely even without SiLA, much as the proprietary schedulers have existed.    As users create interfaces to various instruments, they would put them into the public domain for anyone to use…no SiLA required.

A few years back, a number of folks in the Cambridge, MA community came together and started to discuss an Open Source scheduler.    About two years ago,  Caliper donated it’s CLARA/iLink source code to the University of Wales, in Aberystwyth which can still be found on Source Forge under the name  LABUX.   Last fall, two MIT students created a similar effort called Clarity.   I have not followed either of these endeavors closely, but it seems to me that they could either solidify SiLA or bury it.

My opinion?  When I ran the system business at Caliper, prior to the PE merger, I was not a big fan of Open Source scheduling.   I knew the investment we had made in our own software and although I knew it had it’s limitations, it was enabling technology that created significant revenue.   Still, I saw the LABUX initiative as a way of testing the waters.    If an open source scheduling standard did emerge, better that it be something we were familiar with.     Additionally, if we could build systems and not have to maintain the software staff to maintain the scheduling software, we could in theory be more profitable (that public corporation thing again).   Now, two years removed from that role,  there does not appear to be  solid consensus on Open Source scheduling or interfaces.    I have no stake in the game anymore, so perhaps I can now be a bit more candid and say.  I am a big fan of the pure integration model, so I am rooting for HiRes, PAA and Hudson!   I still don’t get the whole SiLA thing.   Seems a bit… SiLLY to me.

March 18, 2013

Is it a System or is it a Liquid Handler?

Remember Razzles? – ‘is it a candy or is it gum?,” so the TV commercial went.   (I actually razzlessubmitted a contest entry calling it  ‘Ghandy…a peaceful coexistence of seemly incompatible delights.’  Not bad for 9yrs old and still waiting on a reply.

Servicing liquid handlers can be a lot like Razzles in that you start out thinking you are working on one thing only to show up and find out that you have something else going on.

System Types:

There are essentially three types of plate based automated systems commonly found in life science research labs.

Robot Centric – A robot arm (manipulator) delivers all consumables to/fropaam a variety of plate based instruments and storage devices.   While many such systems include a liquid handler, they along with other instruments are controlled via a separate scheduling software that oversees the assay steps and ensures proper timing.   Common examples are Hi-Res Biosolution ACell , PAA automate.it,  Agilent BioCel and Caliper (PE) Staccato.

Distributed Robots – Similar to above, except that there are multiple robot arms connected via a conveyor belt or other plate transporter.  Each arm is dedicated to a small number of instruments which each carry out the assay in a sequential (first station to last) fashion.  Again, one or more liquid handlers may be present in the system however they contain programs that are initiated 

dim4

by a higher level scheduling software.  Such systems were very popular in the pharma industry (Thermo Dim 4, Zymark Allegro) rush to process more compounds per day (HTS and uHTS) looking for new chemical entities, but nowadays you be hard pressed to find many survivors still in operation.

Liquid Handler Centric- In this instance, the liquid handler is the heart of the system, which is to say, the liquid handler software runs the assay (no higher level scheduling software).   A large number of these types of ‘systems’ consist of just the liquid handler, by itself, simply carrying out pipetting operations.   However, as many mainstream liquid handlers now include robotic gripper capabilities, these devices start to be 

evo-system

stretched into more capable systems that automate more of the assay freeing up lab personnel for more high value operations.   The plate gripper can load/unload consumables for multi-plate runs or can deliver consumables to shaking, heating, cooling or waste locations on the liquid handler deck or may move them off-deck to plate readers, washers, centrifuge, incubators, thermal cyclers, reagent dispensers or storage devices.   Examples can be see from well known vendors such as Beckman CoulterTecanHamilton RoboticsAgilent and Perkin Elmer.

Conclusion – when exploring your options for servicing a liquid handler, be sure to consider any peripheral equipment attached to that device.   If the end-user expects their entire system to PM’d during a routine visit, the service tech may be either the bearer of bad news or a well prepared and valued service provider.