All labs have a variety of equipment, instruments, and tools needed to execute the science and deliver on the mission of the organization. Having the right assets in proper working condition when needed by the lab staff is a critical responsibility of the lab manager. Additional effort and resources are required to develop effective asset management practices, but this will ultimately result in time and cost savings when adopted consistently in the lab.
Although there are various aspects of asset management, this article will focus on ways to develop effective processes for investment needs analysis, capital planning, alternate sources of assets, repair planning, preventive maintenance, asset usage, and outsourcing.
Investment needs analysis
To improve overall operational efficiency, there are many different assets that could be purchased by the lab. Often, it can be difficult to prioritize which assets are most worthwhile investing in.
The key to successfully managing the lab’s assets and deciding where to invest in new assets is taking the time to assess which assets will provide the most immediate benefit, and to categorize which could be classified as “wants” rather than “needs.” Lab managers can save time and headaches by establishing a needs-based approach to asset purchases
Needs are assets that solve problems for the lab. Some examples of lab needs include keeping staff safe, enabling the delivery of high-quality data, and solving a technical problem in the lab. Wants, however, describe assets that solve inconveniences for lab staff. Examples of wants include doing the science a little faster or purchasing a newer version of an existing instrument.
Applying a needs-driven process ensures clear communication about what the lab values and clarifies the approval process with line management to justify investment in the lab.
Lab managers and procurement professionals are responsible for providing the assets required by the lab staff. Many of these assets are expensive capital purchases that require planning, business cases, and advocating for approval.
Having a capital planning process can save significant amounts of time and improve the chances of investment being approved. An effective capital plan looks three years ahead and ranks potential investments by the importance (the size and scope) and urgency (the time pressure) of the need. This plan enables the lab manager to work with line management to prepare budgets for large capital purchases in advance.
Alternate sources of assets
Due to the high costs of acquiring assets, lab managers benefit from developing processes to consider alternative sources for assets, like used equipment, refurbished equipment, renting and/or leasing. Each of these has benefits compared to purchasing all assets new. Used equipment can be purchased for much lower prices than new equipment. Some used equipment will be refurbished by the reseller, which means that they have inspected it and resolved any performance problems prior to sale. It is important to understand the history of used equipment and develop relationships with trustworthy sources of used and refurbished equipment.
Leasing or renting is another alternative that helps labs acquire expensive assets. It shifts the cost of the new equipment from a capital budget to an operating budget, and often for lease it has a lease to own provision that allows the lab to keep the asset once the lease is paid. Especially when capital budgets are insufficient and highly competitive, leasing can be an effective tool for lab managers. Some equipment vendors offer leasing programs, and external leasing companies can provide the financing to enable leasing.
Keeping all lab assets operational can be challenging. Most labs have a wide range of instruments of different ages and track records. Developing a service and repair plan can streamline operations by ensuring the instruments are available when needed. It also helps lab staff know who to call when service is needed urgently. Repair planning often consists of three different categories: service plans, service at need, and in-house repairs.
Service plans are very effective in keeping assets in top shape but can be expensive. They are often reserved for the most important assets in the lab. Few labs can afford to buy service plans for all of the assets. Service plans often have different agreement levels that help to optimize the delivery of service versus the cost. Service plans are an effective way to grow long-term relationships with the instrument vendors.
Service at need
Another approach is to develop business relationships with vendors and third-party providers of instrument services so that service can be obtained at the time of need. Knowing who to call and having knowledgeable service providers available can greatly speed up the process of getting broken instruments back online.
The third option is to repair the instruments internally. When developing this approach, it is important to obtain sufficient training for lab staff and access to parts so that they can efficiently carry out the service themselves.
One way to increase the uptime of lab assets is to ensure that preventive maintenance is completed in a timely fashion. Some new equipment has intelligence built-in that predicts when maintenance is needed and provides warnings for needed preventive maintenance. This maintenance can be provided by vendors, external service providers, or by internal lab staff. It is important to have a schedule of needed maintenance items and ensure that it is checked and followed. In many labs, the preventive maintenance plan is part of a larger quality assurance or metrology program aimed at helping the lab produce high quality data. These maintenance plans work best when owned by someone in the lab and familiar with the assets to be maintained.
An alternative to owning and maintaining every lab asset required is to outsource. It is possible to find nearly every activity required by the lab in outsourcing partners. One of the key benefits of outsourcing is paying only for what the lab needs. For knowledge, expertise, and assets not used every day, paying an outsourced partner lab to conduct that work on your behalf can be cost- and time-effective. In addition, outsourcing can help the lab not pay for people and assets that, while important, might sit idle regularly.
Lab managers can save time for themselves and their staff by consistently implementing these asset management processes. Making better decisions around asset management will increase the performance of the lab and save money that can be invested towards their true needs.