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Ready to Buy

When preparing to purchase a new laboratory instrument, keep bid specifications basic, let as many vendors as possible compete, look at more than basic spec requirements, check for unique features of each system, and encourage demos.

by R. Gerry Hall
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What to Consider When Preparing Bid Specifications

Keep instrument bid specifications open and realistic

A longtime practice of sales representatives is to convince a prospect to include one certain bid requirement. This limitation may eliminate worthy competition from submitting bids. Bid specifications are fine, providing every line item is what is always needed—and that some variation absolutely will not do the job. Sometimes bid specs are a bluff. Some specs are not met, even by your perceived “preferred” OEM.

What if a limiting spec removes from consideration what might turn out to be a better long-term asset? Realistic specs are good. OEMs that are not competitive will not bid—or are easily eliminated from consideration.

The decision-making process

Sometimes you think you know who you want to do business with. This may be because neighboring facilities have the same instrument (so you are relying on word of mouth). Or someone may have “locked in” your ear. Don’t just accept claims of superiority or of a competitor’s shortcomings without fully sourcing. Remember that you are talking to a sales rep. The sales rep’s job is to get your order. Contact references for all top candidates offering bids. You may know users of one instrument, but don’t discount other options. Talk to all references—all companies. The wrong purchase may cause you to lose (or waste) precious annual budget dollars. Some budget wasters include money lost on an emotional (not objective) purchase or on more-expensive consumables, by getting less warranty or by missing some technological advancement.

Company reputation

Does one sales rep or one company have a reputation? Does this create a positive or negative prejudice? With repeat one-on-one visits, what do you really think of this company, its product and its people? Remember, your job is to find the best long-term solution for your specific application—not a friend.

Promises of “soon to be delivered” features need to be treated carefully. Does a company show itself as a leader in innovation and relevant revisions or does it only talk about what is coming? A feature “soon-to-be-released” may get off to a rocky start. Will this new feature actually perform as described? Will it meet audit requirements?

A long-term investment

Explore all options. This may take a little more time. The decision you make is the decision you will live with for years. Forget about “follow the leader.” Investigate. Do any contenders include value-added features in their offering? Do you fully understand the capabilities and limitations of all features?

Why might vendor-specific specs be bad in the overall process?

  1. The Cost Factor – An award based on some “excluding” spec might turn out to be more expensive than other offerings. If only one OEM can fill some specification, they can also charge more. Is that spec critical? Is it justified?
  2. The Cost Factor – Compare new instrument warranties (90 days, one or two years); costs of service contracts, consumables, expendables, reagents and even waste disposal.
  3. Technology – The favored supplier last year may now be left behind by various new innovations offered by vendors X, Y or Z. Evaluate everyone

Where the bid process breaks down

Sales reps cover a large territory and a wide variety of accounts. They can’t always know every prospect or who is getting ready to buy. They may receive an “out to bid” notification. If they are then excluded from coming in to talk or do demos, they have missed their chance to present. You have missed your chance to ensure that you have done the best job for your company. Don’t you want all relevant information available to make the best decision possible for your facility?

Some bid specs that rate discussion

I recently reviewed one set of bid specs for an automated chemistry analyzer and was amazed at all the ambiguous requirements

  1. The ability to program and run seven chemistries in one run. Many automated chemistry analyzers can analyze seven different analytes in one run. This depends on what chemistries are being run. One- and two-reagent tests may allow for seven-analyte runs. What happens when you want to include two or three tests that are three- and four-reagent chemistries? Some instruments then wouldn’t meet the requirements used in designing this ambiguous bid spec.
  2. Cooling and heating compartments. Instruments are basically configured to control the possibilities of migration, cross-contamination, absorption and evaporation. And many labs are encouraged to “extend the workday” by starting a final run before going home at the end of the shift. This is fine, but you may need to use judgment as to what analytes and reagents are partnered for the night run. Stop. Think.
  3. Capacity for 60, 80 or 100 samples. This may be an arbitrary number utilized as a lockout spec. Less sample capacity is not critical—especially if you receive multiple sample carriers (trays). If two trays are required to load a full run, this may allow for greater efficiency and less analysis time. Dovetailing your work allows the operator to start a run while then pouring the second half of the run. Analysis starts while run prep and table building continues.
  4. Ability to substitute larger-capacity sample trays. If sample trays allow you to double the number of samples in a run, ask the questions: What’s different? What are the comparable sizes of the sample trays? Are “large capacity” sample trays a different size? Are cups half the normal size or less? Smaller sample cups mean you probably can’t load a run for multiple analytes or maybe even allow for over-range dilutions. Don’t assign a bid spec to a system where the fit is not well thought out.
  5. Washout and carryover. I think all instruments include water reservoirs and a certain amount of washing. A point here may be to include a meaningless spec to confuse the prospect. If carryover was an issue for certain instruments, they would not enjoy their continued sales successes in a spirited and competitive marketplace. No one could sell an instrument that is subject to carryover, contamination and false data. If you are concerned, ask all reps to do demos where carryover can be evaluated.
  6. NO3 must use a cadmium column. The poisonous metal cadmium has been employed as an industry standard for nitrate analysis for more than 50 years. Used cadmium becomes poisonous cadmium waste. There are EPA- and FDA-approved nitrate analyses that don’t employ cadmium. I hear that Rhode Island has banned the use of mercury in reagents. Other states are looking at this same ban. I predict that next on this list will be cadmium. Why not consider taking a step toward “greening” America now?

One nefarious sales rep’s trick is to reference old information. Again, keep an open mind. Talk to everyone. Ask all the questions. A sales rep makes claims for his or her instrument. If that sales rep makes claims against another rep or instrument, investigate why. Every company should be able to defend itself against another’s claims.

I recommend you keep bid specs basic. Let as many vendors as possible compete. Look at more than basic spec requirements. Check for unique features of each system. Encourage demos. Then you can truly buy the best-fit and best-priced equipment and supplies for your lab.