Woman works on a lab instrument with a soldering iron

Choosing Services to Improve Lab Performance

Lab services involve the same kinds of decisions as other investments

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Running a modern lab is a complex responsibility. It takes a wide variety of knowledge, expertise, and experience to deliver all the different activities required for the lab to successfully meet its mission and serve its key stakeholders. It is very difficult for most labs to have all the skills required in-house to deliver everything that is needed, especially smaller labs. Fortunately, there are service providers available who can help the lab with specific activities.

Buying lab services is very similar to any other investment in the lab. In this case, the lab is buying expertise and people power, rather than equipment. The costs of lab services are usually operational costs, rather than capital costs, which puts them in a different part of the budget. The good news is that lab services don’t need to compete for funds with capital investment in equipment, instruments, and software. However, lab managers still need to carefully budget the monthly operational costs associated with the various services.

Similar to other costs in the lab, lab managers are forced to prioritize the needs of the lab and separate them from the wants. In general, needs fulfill key values and mission of the lab, like safety, quality, and delivery of technical outcomes. Wants generally make the work easier for individuals. Once the priorities are understood, the lab manager can decide which services to pursue.

For lab services, there are generally three categories of decisions: do it yourself, hire a service provider, or go without. Building a small matrix of choices can help the lab make these decisions. This process begins with deciding which of the high priority activities the lab staff can perform themselves, and which might be better delivered by a lab service provider. When sorting these choices, it is important to recognize that the activities performed by lab staff are not free. They have costs associated with the labor expended, and opportunity costs because the expertise of the staff is dedicated to that activity instead of something else. Purchasing lab services isn’t a decision to spend money or not, but to decide what type of spend best serves the lab. 

Internal versus external

To better understand the costs of staff providing the needed activities internally, calculate the hourly cost of the people expected to do the work. Understanding the internal costs can be important data to help make improved decisions about lab services. Of course, all lab staff don’t have the same cost. To make it easier to make these decisions, it is useful to calculate average hourly costs for three groups of staff: junior staff or technicians who are primarily tasked with producing data, mid-level staff who are primarily tasked with running projects, and senior staff who are primarily tasked with solving complex problems.

Once the hourly rates are understood, the next step is to understand who has the knowledge and expertise required to deliver the activity, how much time is expected to complete the work, and any other costs required, like replacement parts for an instrument repair. This will determine the internal costs.

With a clear understanding of the internal costs, the level of expertise of staff, and the urgency of the lab’s need, lab managers can investigate external options to meet these needs. Sourcing lab services vendors is very similar to finding vendors for equipment and instruments. Useful approaches include talking to peers, attending conferences and exhibits, internet searches, and talking with salespeople. Vendors need to demonstrate their ability to deliver the need, meet the lab’s urgency, and charge something the lab can afford within its operational budget. 

There are often multiple vendors who can supply similar services. It will be important to the lab manager to understand the details of their offerings, prioritize what is most important to the lab, and negotiate on price. Vendors can often mix and match from different offerings to build a program that will serve the lab at a price they can afford.

Types of lab services

There are many different services that labs can purchase. Each has multiple vendors who offer different approaches, coverages, and costs. There are many ways that lab managers can include services to augment the skills, talent, and time of the lab staff. Here are six different lab services that can benefit most labs.

Staffing

Recruiting the right talent is a paramount responsibility for lab managers. Staffing agencies can provide some significant benefits, including having readily available candidates to make hiring faster, experience in the market to help set competitive wages and packages, and the ability to try out new staff on temporary contracts that reduce the risks in hiring new staff. Another benefit of starting new staff as temporary is that the costs of the staffing services can be spread out over the term of the contract, which is usually three to six months.

Lab Monitoring

Lab monitoring can take many forms, but a particularly valuable service to labs is active monitoring of lab equipment and the lab environment. Vendors can supply the monitoring hardware in the most important points in the lab, the software to track the data, and an alerting service to let lab staff know about problems. This can be particularly important to protect high value or irreplaceable samples and ensure that the lab is ready to run experiments under the proper conditions.

Outsourcing

It may seem strange to hire another lab to conduct experiments, but outsourcing enables labs to focus on their strengths and send other work to a lab that can do it better, faster, and/or cheaper. Use outsourcing to obtain high-quality results for experiments that are not in the normal range of the lab’s capabilities or as overflow when demand is high within the normal capabilities. Outsourcing can be very effective compared to investing in rarely used equipment or expertise or struggling with an unusual technical problem. Many different contract research organizations (CROs) exist that can execute a wide range of different technical work.

Relocation

Moving a lab is a huge undertaking. Just managing the proper shutdown of expensive equipment is a significant challenge, let alone moving it to another location and getting it started again. Especially if the lab operates in a regulated space, relocation services can save significant time and effort. It is important to note that there are many relocation options. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing decision. For some labs, it might be important to bring in a vendor to just deal with the most complex equipment.

Pre-owned equipment

Labs have many options when investing in equipment. Pre-owned services provide lower cost options than purchasing new. Especially labs with limited capital budgets, these services can be critical. Lab managers need to establish their comfort with used instruments and determine if they require refurbished equipment. Pre-owned providers can also help locate rare equipment and hard to find parts.

Repair and Maintenance

The most common lab service is help keeping the equipment operating properly. Most labs use a combination of lab staff and external service to repair and maintain their equipment. A wide array of options is available that range from full-service contracts to pay as you go agreements. Lab managers need to understand the return on their investment (ROI) for repair and maintenance. A good practice is to renegotiate service each year based on the data and savings of the prior year. 

Used properly, lab managers can effectively extend the ability of the lab to deliver by considering different lab services. Calculating the ROI of these services versus the internal cost of executing the activity provides a solid foundation for making these investment decisions.

Top Image:
iStock, Ergin Yalcin