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How Service Plans Can Help Maintain a Lab’s Critical Flow Path

Agilent CrossLab Service Contracts support critical flow paths through reliable maintenance and repair

by Agilent Technologies
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Douglas Rutan is the senior product manager for CrossLab Service Contracts at Agilent Technologies. He holds a BSc from the University of Mount Union and an MSc from Case Western Reserve University in physics and an MBA from the University of Rochester.

Portrait photo of Douglas Rutan
Douglas Rutan
Credit: Douglas Rutan

Q: Please tell us about your career journey and what drives you.

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A: Early in my career, I was an engineering physicist for General Electric, engineering, developing, and producing high-performance lighting products. I then moved to a medical products company specializing in fiber optic illumination used in things like endoscopes and surgical headlights. There I transferred from engineering product development into marketing and customer service, then on to product service.

Working in service for the last 15 years has given me a deep appreciation of the fact that purchasing a product is a minor component of the overall customer experience. Customers will live with that product for 10-20 years, setting the foundation for a long-term partnership. The service aspect becomes critical to success—we support our customers in achieving success, and we succeed through continued business with them. Service forms an almost lifelong partnership with customers, and helping to maintain that continual, successful relationship is what drives me.

Focusing on that bigger picture has brought me to my current role with Agilent Crosslab, where I oversee the core service plans that accompany our equipment. Agilent is an enormous company; we have a variety of service plans available across nearly 19 product platforms and operate in most countries around the world.

I manage the complexity surrounding plan features and pricing for different technologies, industries, and locations. For instance, with service professionals going on site to support customers around the world, pricing will depend on platform complexity, country-specific labor rates, and estimated parts utilization.

Q: What is a critical flow path?

A: Every process or plan contains a series of critical points. Working through the General Electric engineering training program, I gained experience in manufacturing across the scale from low to extremely high volume, with lines producing anywhere from a couple of parts to millions of products per day. At all scales, there was constant pressure to improve the productivity of the manufacturing lines. We focused on fully understanding and mapping the process in detail to identify the bottlenecks—critical process steps that constrain the line’s speed and where material can build up. Similarly, in new product development and market release, detailed project plans define all the tasks and subtasks. There is always a series of task elements that will constrain the speed of completion. These define the critical path where any setbacks will delay the entire project.

The critical flow path is the concept that any general activity will contain processes and flow elements that form a critical path leading to the successful completion of the endeavor, whether it’s a manufacturing process, a drug development process, or inspecting food deliveries to qualify for receipt.

Q: What role do Agilent instruments play in the critical flow path?

A: Agilent instruments are very complex, specialized, and expensive research and diagnostic equipment that typically play an important role in the critical flow path for our customers. From research and development to manufacturing and quality control, once an instrument is in the lab, customers are going to be dependent upon that equipment operating properly for their success. We know an unexpected delay at a critical point can be very costly. If an instrument goes down as a result of poor maintenance or slow repair times, average costs have been reported to be over $10,000 a day.

Mass spectrometers (MS) are one such example. I worked as an engineer on halogen inner bulbs for automotive headlights in a high-volume manufacturing environment producing hundreds per hour. Halogen inner bulbs use a special fill gas with trace amounts of halogen compounds. The halogen compounds produce a high-temperature regenerative chemical cycle: as the tungsten filament evaporates, the halogen compounds pick up the tungsten molecules that are deposited on the cooler glass wall and return them in a cycle that extends the life of the product. It’s a chemically dependent process in a high-temperature environment, requiring a precise proportion of halogen compounds in a gas free of contamination. Quality control checks on contaminants and halogen compounds were run using an MS, with the line continuing to run only if the product passed. If the MS goes offline, one of two things can happen. Either the entire manufacturing line with scores of people stops, or the line continues to run without quality checks. The accumulating material must be checked before it ships and puts massive amounts of inventory at risk. This instrument was sitting in the flow path and vital to the success of the business.

Q: How do service plans support a customer’s success?

A: Service plans are there to minimize, to the absolute best of our ability, the amount of downtime an instrument will have. They typically include a preventive maintenance component, and I can’t emphasize enough how important that is to prevent any future breakdown. Regular preventive maintenance has been shown to reduce the probability of breakdown by over 35 percent and extend the instrument’s uptime by three or more days per year. If a breakdown does occur, the service plan typically provides for an engineer to go on site and get the instrument back online quickly. Agilent does an excellent job at that—first, working with customers to schedule preventive maintenance visits at their convenience, like during shutdowns or a holiday break. Second, we can solve over 50 percent of problems using virtual technical support technology. But if a visit is required, we will get on site quickly and fix the problem right away. Speed is paramount, and this is where labs benefit most from service plans with the equipment manufacturer, we have immediate access to any needed parts with millions of repair parts in inventory. That is the role service plans play, but they are just one component of the overall support plan and CrossLab experience.

Q: What other components should people look for in a comprehensive support plan?

A: CrossLab builds a partnership in several different ways, like providing training and education, helping with installation, introduction to new equipment, and method development. Compliance services are very big—we work in regulated industries and help clear FDA and other regulatory compliance hurdles. We will also help support other OEM manufacturers’ instruments and with relocating equipment if a customer is moving a lab. Lab-wide management services for operations and optimization fall under this umbrella as well. We’ve provided greater visibility and utilization of all analytical assets, for example, for customers like Pfizer or Shell, through data intelligence, expert guidance, vendor management, and other tools.

Q: How do you see the service experience evolving in the future?

A: It will be a continued expansion of the digital information technology universe that we are all living in. Labs are continuously being challenged to reduce cost and do more with less. You will see more virtual technical support, maybe even three-dimensional. Equipment will get smarter with improved ability to self-diagnose. They will be self-predictive, signaling if they are starting to break down before they do or need repair or service sooner than expected. Behind that will be an expanded digital infrastructure—the dashboards and portals making everything easier. It is an exciting time to look forward to, with the continued foundation formed by the great people here at Agilent CrossLab Services.

Please visit Lab Instrument Service Plans, Analytical Instrument Contracts | Agilent for more information.