January 31, 2013
Do I Really Need An Extended Warranty or Service Contract? (Part I of 2)
Budget time…you know the drill. Salaries, supplies, new equipment and oh yeah, ongoing maintenance support. Has there ever been a more sexy and attention riveting topic than maintenance budgeting? Your options are pretty straight forward;
- Annual Service Contracts (typically 10-15% of purchase price, per year )
- Break/Fix Repair As You Go (cross your fingers, ready the checkbook)
- Basic Periodic Maintenance (pay for basic upkeep, then Repair As You Go)
If a particular instrument is critical to your labs mission you cannot afford downtime. And, while we are on the subject, exactly what types ofinstruments are mission critical? Of course, the answer to that question will be different for every lab and largely depends upon their focus area. For instance, if you have are in a cell biology group and have a high content imaging system such as a GE IN Cell, it might be wise to put that unit under a service contract with the manufacturer. This is advisable for any instrument that can be considered unique or expensive but could even be extended to relatively new technology such as microfluidic based analyzers. Caliper (now Perkin Elmer) provide a line of such analyzers for enzymatic assays as well as nucleic acids and protein analysis. The first and second generation instruments are still out there and they require a great deal of TLC and in depth operation and support knowledge. Newer versions of these refrigerator sized devices are much more compact and a lot less support intensive, eliminating complex laser alignments and environmental controls. Still, while the instruments themselves may be easier to service, the actual “microfluidic chips” that perform sampling and separation cost several thousand dollars each and users may run the risk of voiding the chip warranty if they don’t use the OEM to maintain the instrument. Stick with the OEM service contract.
Okay, so what instruments that are less specialized…do you really need to spend your precious budget dollars on annual service contracts? Let’s take a look at the staple of many labs, liquid handlers. There are literally thousands of such units from companies like Beckman Coulter, Tecan, Hamilton, Agilent and Perkin Elmer. These XYZ robots offer great pipetting repeatability and walkaway automation of mixing, filtration, incubation and other critical assay steps. A liquid handler that cost $100-150K ten years ago can still command a $10-15K+ price tag for an annual maintenance contract. That’s a lot, but is it really necessary? Liquid handlers, at least the good one’s from mainstream companies like those listed above have proven to beremarkably reliable. With even basic annual maintenance, these instruments can run trouble free for the foreseeable future. In fact, most OEM periodic or preventative maintenance (PM) procedures are just that, minimal approaches that clean, inspect and lubricate. One exception would be Tecan, whose EVO PM procedure calls for replacing all fluid path components making their PM (and subsequently their annual maintenance agreements) costs some of the most expensive. Is that necessary? Probably not, but one could argue that such a thorough approach is akin to performing a ‘field refurb.’ If your lab has GxP requirements, this would certainly be advisable, but otherwise you might think about doing this every other year. If you own a Beckman FX /NX, or PE Janus you might want to follow the Tecan lead, and get that ‘field refurb,’ especially if you have never had this level of service after several years of use.
Be wary of annual contracts for integrated robotic systems. A system with an industrial robot in a safety enclosure might tend to many additional instruments such as plate washers, readers, centrifuges, incubators and so on. If you apply the 10-15% of sales price logic to the purchase price of the system, you will find your coverage costs being inflated by things that could never fail like the extruded aluminum tables, the safety enclosure or even the design and build labor that was factored into the original system price tag. Better to look as the individual instruments in that system and determine their support costs piece by piece, not in the aggregate.
(In Part II of this post, we will look at the service requirements of thermal cyclers, plate readers and centrifuges).
January 25, 2013
How Do I Support Thee, Let Me Count The Ways…
Ever walk through a research lab and wonder ‘how do they keep all this stuff running?’ Well, I do and I make it a point to ask. From the many labs I have spoken with, the definitive answer is…’depends.’ Not to be too snarky but the answers vary widely depending upon the type and size of the organization, however there appear to be three main approaches;
- Internal (users/tinkerers or more organized support groups),
- Equipment manufacturers (OEM) (service contracts or break/fix)
- Third Party Providers or ISO’s (Independent Service Organization)
Usually, the smaller the entity, the more more likely they are to self maintain. Service contracts from OEMs are expensive and everyone’s budgets are limited these days. Because of this, many end-users also double as the resident experts on the instruments in their lab. Although it is getting rarer, many larger biotech and pharmas have the luxury of dedicated internal support teams that provide support.
Mid size and large biotech and pharma have also relied heavily upon large multi-vendor service (MVS) organizations to provide coverage of all their assets. Well known names such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, Perkin Elmer, Agilent, Johnson Controls and GE Healthcare all provide whole site support for hundreds, if not thousands of instruments.
Each of the aforementioned have their pros and cons. Just bear in mind that no one will ever know as much about an instrument as the company that made it. They will have the design knowledge, replacement parts, procedures and tools to remedy just about anything that can go wrong. But (you knew there would be a but), it isn’t cheap. Typical service contracts are priced out at 10-15% of the purchase price of an instrument. If you have to self maintain don’t despair. Often the best approach is to try to keep up with the basic PM schedule that the manufacturer recommends. Kinda like changing the oil and filters in your car. This is the approach many of the MVS companies use and for good reason. Basic PM’s are the most affordable and least invasive procedures to keep instruments ‘research-ready.’ In fact, the first thing most OEMs do when they begin a service contract is to perform a PM as they know it can often head off major repairs that can erode profit margins. Finally, ‘Break/Fix’ is more prevalent than you would think but be forewarned…the cost of repairs can be astronomical,
Truth be told, there is no perfect solution.
So what is the right strategy for your lab? Well, that depends…
Tell us how your keep your lab up and running.
January 23, 2013
Welcome to our blog…
Okay, so we have a blog…big deal. I mean everybody does, right? Just what the world needs. Turns out, there really aren’t a lot of places to go on the web that provide info about maintaining lab instruments. The purpose of this blog will be to try to point out useful resources wherever they may exist in an effort to help folks keep their lab instruments research-ready. Now, since our forte is plate-based instruments, we really won’t be looking at the whole gambit of things you can find in a lab. No freezer talk here. Ditto for water baths, microscopes, MS or GC gear. What we will be talking about are liquid handlers, plate readers, washers, incubators, thermal cyclers…you get the picture. Feel free to chime in and please try to keep it cordial. We are not looking for sales pitches or feature salvos, just sound advice and bits & pieces of useful info.