March 26, 2013
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 manager (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 the 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 not 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 majorcomponents 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 integratedsystem…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 (Thermo, PE, Johnson Controls, Agilent, GE) or smaller ISO (independent services organizations) like The LabSquad.
Don’t be nervous about system support…be informed.
March 4, 2013
We’ve been hearing a lot of our customers ask about various lab instruments being compatible with Windows 7 lately. Seems IT groups everywhere are struggling with the eventual demise of Windows XP. Already unavailable for new PC’s since 2010, Microsoft has announced that all support for WinXP will cease in April of 2014.
While most instrument OEM’s (original equipment manufacturers) are already making the move to Win7, a huge number of legacy instruments in labs are running XP. Manufacturers may not want to provide ‘backward compatibility’ for older equipment for two reasons; First, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Sounds lame, but most instrument software is developed with the OS of the day in mind. Trying to get the performance and reliability that users expect by supporting a major OS upgrade could lead to tons of surprises…ones that they won’t be paid to correct. Also, more than a few vendors have used this Microsoft phase out as a reason to obsolete older instruments and encourage users to upgrade to new hardware in order to get Win7 compliance.
If budgets don’t permit the purchase of new equipment desperate users should consider exploring the Windows 7 compatibility tool. One caveat is that you would be well advised to back up your WinXP first, or better still try installing your legacy applications on a new Win7 PC. It’s a lot easier to mess around with a new PC if you know you can go back to the original PC if all else fails…The following is gratuitously ‘borrowed’ from http://www.howtogeek.com
Using Program Compatibility Mode in Windows 7
It can be quite annoying when you try to install a driver or other software on Windows 7 just to find out it isn’t compatible with the new OS. Today we look at using the Program Compatibility Assistant, and troubleshooting compatibility issues so programs install successfully.
Program Compatibility Assistant
Program Compatibility is a mode that allows you to run programs that were written for earlier versions of Windows. The Program Compatibility Assistant detects compatibility issues and allows you to reinstall using the recommended settings. For example we got this error trying to install a music interface device driver for home recording.
After we closed out of the error, the Program Compatibility Assistant came up advising that the program didn’t install correctly. To try to install it again select Reinstall using recommended settings.
The Compatibility Assistant went through and fixed the issue and we were able to install the driver. The problem was the driver was designed for Vista and the the assistant automatically select the correct compatibility mode for us to install it.
Sometimes you might get a screen similar to this example where Virtual PC 2007 isn’t compatible with Windows 7 and you can check for solutions online.
After checking for solutions online, we’re shown that there is an update that might solve the issue.
Which points us to the Microsoft site to download Virtual PC 2007 SP1.
Note: Sometimes a program does install correctly and Program Compatibility Assistant thinks it didn’t. There are also times when you cancel an installation half way through and it pops up. If you’re an Admin and tired of seeing it pop up because you know what you’re doing, check out our article on how to disable program compatibility assistant in Windows 7 and Vista.
Program Compatibility Troubleshooter
There might be times when Program Compatibility Assistant can’t find a solution, or a program installs fine, but doesn’t work the way it should. In that case you’ll need to troubleshoot the issue. Right-click on the program icon from the Start Menu or in many programs the shortcut icon and select Troubleshoot compatibility.
Windows will detect any issues with the program and you can try to run it with the recommended settings, or go through the troubleshooting wizard. For this part of our example we’ll select Try recommended settings.
This option allows us to test run the program to see if the new compatibility settings fix the issue. Click on Start the program to begin testing it out. After testing the program and determining if the settings work or not click on Next.
If the program is running correctly you can save the settings and it will continue to run with those settings. If it didn’t work properly, you can try using different settings or report the problem to Microsoft and check for an online solution.
If you selected No, try again using different settings it will bring up the troubleshooter where you can specify the issues you’re having with the program.
Depending what you check in the screen above, you’ll be presented with other options for what is not working correctly. Where in this example it shows different display problems.
New settings are applied to the program and you can try running it again.
If none of the compatibility settings work for the program, you’re prompted to to send a generated problem report to Microsoft.
Manually Select Compatibility
Of course if you don’t want to deal with the Program Compatibility troubleshooter, you can go in and manually select Compatibility Mode. Right-click the program icon and select Properties.
Then click the Compatibility tab then check the box Run this program in compatibility for and select the version of Windows from the dropdown. Now it will always run the program in Compatibility Mode for the version of Windows you selected.
Hopefully running the program in an earlier version of Windows helps solve the problems you’re experiencing. Each program is different so the troubleshooting steps will vary. Most programs written for Vista should work in Windows 7, but not all of them. If you’re having problems with a program not working correctly on Windows 7 and have gone through the Compatibility Mode troubleshooter, your best bet is do search the developers website for a newer version or in their forums.
February 4, 2013
Although the patent for PCR expired back in 2006 and promised to herald in a new wave of low-cost thermal cyclers, the legal debate over Taq polymerase enzymes continues to make some manufactures nervous about the North American market. Still, the number of new thermal cyclers to hit the market over the last several years has increased dramatically. As the prices for these work horse devices drops accordingly, the justification for service contracts starts to wane. When opting for a low-cost unit with no local service support, some users may be okay with depot repair or flat-out replacement. When opting for higher quality units, many labs are going with periodic maintenance and routine performance rectification (OQ/PQ). Printed reports or recalibrations by the service tech can be incorporated into your lab’s SOP’s but if you are self maintaining, don’t forget to have the data signed off by more than one person, especially if you are doing forensic or clinical work.
Now, let me put my spin on centrifuge support (wouldn’t be a blog without the occasional pun, now would it?). Seriously, it doesn’t matter whether you have a floor mount, bench top or robot-loaded centrifuge, these devices get a lot of use and it is not uncommon to see units that ten or more years old. Motors and bearings don’t last forever so routine maintenance is critical. Additionally, you folks that leave your rotors in the centrifuge and never take them out should have big scarlet letters painted on your lab coats so you can be publicly ridiculed by the service community! Seriously, many a lab tech has pulled a muscle or two trying to loosen and remove a rotor that has permanently bonded with the spindle.
Last on the docket for this posting is microplate reader upkeep and maintenance. Truly, a wide-ranging topic (may have to post separately on this one to do it justice). The three main readers types (modes) are absorbance, fluorescence and luminescence and while some are limited to one mode, others can do more than one (multimode). Of course there are also fluorescence polarization (FP), time resolved fluorescence (HTRF), high content imagers and microfludic analyzers, but for today we will stick with the big three. All three types work on the basic principle of light measurement to detect samples within the wells of a plate. Absorbance readers use a light source, filters and a detector to measure what percentage of the source light is transmitted through the sample. Fluorescence readers are more sensitive and measure the amount of light emitted from the sample, while Luminescent readers have no light source and instead detect a chemical or biological reaction from the sample. Depending upon the specific reader, any number of factors can result in bad data but generally most failures are a combination of optical alignments (emitter, detector, filters…etc) or light source age. Just about every plate manufacturer provides N.I.S.T. traceable “test plates” that can be used to calibrate the device and a number of third-party companies also have more generic standards that can also be used. It seems patently obvious to say, but what is the point of conducting an assay if you cannot say with a high degree of certainty that your detection results are accurate? At a minimum, plate readers should be PM’d once per calendar year and that procedure should include a test report against a known standard. If your lab only has one reader and it is critical to your research, an annual service contract that includes analytical data would be a wise choice.