Because modern mass spectrometers are based on solid-state electronics, they do not suffer from the mechanical and electronic problems of yesterday’s instruments. Solid-state electronics, the “shrinking instrument,” and robust dial-up methods have eliminated yesteryear’s high level of specialization and the obligatory doctorate in spectrometry. MS has reached the point where walk-up operation is common, and the instruments are frequently viewed as “just another detector” for GC and HPLC.
The role of an MS lab manager has similarly changed. When MS skills were concentrated within large core laboratories, MS managers possessed many skills, but their responsibilities were geographically limited. Managing and controlling activities was straightforward. (This goes for other instruments that have been “democratized,” such as nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry, elemental analysis, and to an extent even HPLC.)
“Today, MS may occur in three different buildings, across ten labs, for biology and chemistry,” Andrew Tyler explains. Management of MS instrumentation has become decentralized, if one specialist/manager exists at all. The burden of caring for instrumentation and guiding end users falls onto group leaders, who by necessity must rely on the vendor’s customer support.
Tyler also sees a generational change based on what he calls the “instant message generation.” We’ve heard this before with regard to complex instrumentation. “But most software from mass spectrometer vendors has not begun to incorporate the sort of thinking that allows users to scan bar codes from samples in one room onto a handheld device, and upload the list to an instrument in another room.” Sample data is most often still typed into a spreadsheet or database.
According to Tom Szarzynski, the top servicerelated issue today is an unintended consequence of instrument sensitivity and stability. “It doesn’t take much to dirty up the source, which is where ionization occurs. The majority of those service calls require only a thorough cleaning and recalibration.” Szarzynski recommends at least two preventive maintenance visits per year, and ongoing routine care for high-throughput laboratories whose spectrometers are working constantly.
What can go wrong?
Introducing too much sample is one source of contamination. Everyday usage and complex matrices that have not been properly prepped are two other potential causes. But for LC-MS, the HPLC eluent itself, containing acids, bases, and salts, poses contamination risk.
While service groups are ready to perform necessary and even routine maintenance, labs would do well to train users and mid-level personnel in first-line or “triage” maintenance, which minimizes downtime for many routine problems. Users can be trained to remove the source assembly, clean it, and reinstall it. “Regardless, some customers are so busy they call us in even for routine problems,” Szarzynski says.
Aside from electrical power, MS does not have a very large environmental or consumables footprint. This trend will continue as spectrometers’ physical size shrinks. “Every vendor is looking to reduce the space taken up by mass spectrometers,” Szarzynski admits. “Except for the design of research-grade instruments, every manufacturer is trying to achieve benchtop size. However, vendors will compete as always on performance characteristics such as mass range, speed, and the switch from ion trap to quadrupole detection. Those are the big difference makers.”
Cost of ownership, which includes work lost through downtime, is always a consideration when investing in MS. Spetrometers have historically been prone to breakdowns and extensive maintenance requirements. Even today, sensitivity improvements often occur at the expense of robustness.
But current breakthroughs have made instrumentation more reliable, according to Erik Hansen, VP of commercial operations at IONICS Mass Spectrometry Group (Ontario, Canada). Nevertheless, the “black box” nature of MS will always demand comprehensive service and maintenance, although not everyone is happy about that.
“The cost of service contracts is often questioned,” Hansen says, “but service contracts have several advantages. They carry guarantees on downtime and service response times, plus response prioritization when necessary.”
One option to consider when uptime is important is the cost-benefit of on-site maintenance personnel. This can lower the cost of ownership by limiting outside service calls and reducing overall downtime.
“Cost of ownership goes well beyond the initial capital outlay,” Hansen advises. “Evaluation of new instrumentation should include understanding the vendor’s commitment to service, customer support, training, retraining, and methods development.”