April 12, 2013

Who’s Minding The Store?

It has been said that the French love Jerry Lewis.  Books have even been written about it (well, at least one book).store   I would not presume to question French culture…however even Jerry’s old partner Dean Martin sang “Everbody loves somebody sometime…”

Still, when French scientists need to automate ‘cell culture‘ and other time or temperature sensitive assays, they (and researchers from many nations) require automated storage devices (…all that for a ‘store’ reference?)

One of the more common instruments that enable extended walkaway time (the ability to automate multiple plate runs of any given assay) is the automated incubator.  Actually, the term incubator is a bit on a misnomer as these “plate hotels” can have a variety of temperature and/or humidity ranges that enable their use in a wide variety of assays.  To further complicate that definition, said plate hotels can also be used to store plate lids, tip boxes and tube racks.

Ambient – Perhaps the most common of all plate storage devices, ambient hotels can be as simple the removable storage racks found on plate mover robots such as theCaliper/PE Twistetwister iir II or the PAA KiNEDx or even dedicated plate stackers like the Thermo FisherRapidStak.   Many plate reader companies (Molecular DevicesBioTekBMG Labtech…etc) also offer dedicated ambient stacker options.   Additionally, Liconic,  , Agilent,Hi-Res Bio and Thermo Fisher(Kendro/Hereaus) also offer stacker hotels with built-in elevators/plate presenters that are also used in their temp/humidity controlled devices.   Hi-Res Bio also offers the PicoServe for robot arm access.  For the most part, users only need to consider if their assays require random access of individual plates or stacked storage (one plate on top on another).  Stacking plate racks follow what is known as a LIFO or Last In, First Out paradigm.  This is great for empty plates that will be fed into a system for simple tasks such as plate replication or reformatting.    Some folks even use this as a means of eliminating lids, as the plate above acts as the lid for the plate below – top plate is a blank).  Random access racks (individual plate holders) are great for assays where you need to treat each plate uniquely such as hit picking or ELISA.  Plate racks come in portrait or landscape orientation and some devices allow for bar code verification or delidding options.

Heated/Cooling – Options start to become more limited when you need environmental control.   Small batch options include self-contained single plate devices froIncubator_Family-09-2011_02_056bb39b14InHeco, which can be stacked on top of each other as well as recirculating fluid locaThermal-Plate-Stacker-Part-STKRtors fromMéCour.  MéCour also offers a recirculating fluid jacket for Twister II racks.  For more than a handful of plates, there are three well established providers;

  • Liconic – For well over a decade, this little juggernaut from Lichtenstein has created a formidable offering of products, all designed for liquid handler or robot manipulator access.   They also offer ambient hotels that utilize many of the core components used in their environmental models.  The range of products covers just about any application you can come up with!  Just a word of caution, depending upon the age of the instrument, you may find that there are design variations that can make post sales support challenging.
  • Thermo Fisher -Thermo acquired Kendro in 2005 and carried on the Cytomat/Heraeus (and Sorvall) product lines.   Originally, the Heraeus products were co-developed with Liconic and shared many common components and needs, but more recepicoservent products are of a completely new design.
  • Hi-Res Biosolutions – a relative newcomer to storage, but a very impressive line of products ranging from the 8 position Plate Chill cooled racks to high-capacity plate or tube storage.

End users, OEM’s  and system integrators have a wide variety of choices when it comes to extending assay walk-away time.   The French may indeed love Jerry Lewis but researchers love having time to perform higher value tasks due to the reliability of plate storage devices.

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.