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Stretching Your Maintenance Budget

Careful planning and consistent monitoring can significantly improve equipment maintenance programs.

by Gary Lavine
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In modern laboratories, instrumentation can be worth thousands or even millions of dollars. Therefore, keeping this equipment performing reliably is a critical issue when running a laboratory. While most laboratories do not use the type of custom-made instrumentation shown in the picture from Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, the sophistication of instrumentation used by many laboratories does tend to increase over time as science continues to develop more sensitive and precise techniques. Not surprisingly, as the costs and complexity of the instrumentation increases, the maintenance costs also rise.

The structure of the market for scientific instrumentation is set up to make instrument maintenance quite costly. While the market for buying new instrumentation continues to be very competitive, the market for maintenance is typically not as intense. Therefore, many of the major instrument manufacturers can rely on their service organizations as major profit centers. As warranties expire, many laboratories take the default option of simply signing up for a service contract from the equipment manufacturer. With a lack of alternative service options, others simply hope for the best and go without any protection. By planning ahead, however, it is usually possible to work out a better program for keeping your instrumentation maintained.

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Even if the instrumentation in your lab is not quite this sophisticated, it can still be quite expensive to maintain. Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The importance of keeping instrumentation in good working condition cannot be overstated. Instrumentation that is not performing well can bring a laboratory to an abrupt halt. Even a single broken instrument in a large laboratory can cause many delays over time. When the maintenance program is not running smoothly, efforts to get the instruments fixed can take up analysts’ time and can slow progress in the lab and create additional delays. Perhaps even more important, when maintenance programs are not well developed, there is no way to determine when a broken instrument will be working again. Routine planning can be complicated, if not made impossible, when you are unsure which instrumentation will be available.

Service plan options

Although there are a variety of options for taking care of instrument maintenance, the ideal method depends on the specific needs and resources of the individual laboratory. The following sections outline the range of choices that a laboratory can consider.

Maintenance from the original equipment manufacturer

All major equipment manufacturers will be happy to sell you a service contract that extends the warranty on your instrumentation. While this is the most expensive option, there are some advantages. Quite simply, this is the only alternative that allows you to continue the same basic service offered throughout the warranty period. In addition, for some of the most complex instrumentation, the original manufacturer is the only service option. Paying the manufacturer directly for service is convenient, but of course, this convenience comes at a cost.

Alternatively, maintenance and repair services can be purchased from the manufacturer on an as-needed basis. Although this approach eliminates up-front costs, there is no reliable way to predict the cost of repair and maintenance over the course of a year, which can lead to budgeting issues. In addition, repairs typically take longer with this approach as purchase orders must be generated for every repair, and manufacturers typically prioritize warranty and contract work over extended warranty repairs. If you are willing to gamble and can deal with the additional delays, however, getting service on an as-needed basis from the manufacturer can be a logical option.

Using an underwriter to pay for equipment maintenance

Another approach is to take out an insurance policy for the maintenance of all your scientific instrumentation. These policies are typically set up so that the underwriter pays for the original equipment manufacturers to actually perform required maintenance and repairs. This approach costs less than signing multiple contracts with individual manufacturers, and manufacturer-trained personnel are still taking care of your instrumentation. In addition, billing is simplified since a single insurance policy covers all of the lab’s instrumentation. The downside to this approach is that repairs routinely take longer than when you are under contract with the manufacturers directly, as your service calls are considered a lower priority. Another more serious consideration is that the relationship between the underwriter and one of the instrument companies may sour, creating all sorts of complications to deal with when you need service.

In-house service people

Once your laboratory reaches a critical mass, it might make sense to simply hire your own fulltime service person. An in-house service person is typically shared between all laboratories across an organization. Often these technicians can attend trainings to become certified by the individual manufacturers. The main advantages of this approach are that you get the fastest response time possible and you have someone who is intimately familiar with the instrumentation and the users in your organization. Of course, this option is very costly and not practical for most laboratories. It is also worth keeping in mind that even with an in-house person, it may still be necessary to bring in manufacturers’ technicians to deal with the thorniest issues.

Multi-vendor service organizations

There are a number of service organizations that specialize in servicing instrumentation from multiple vendors. These companies offer a cheaper alternative to in-house service people, as they reduce costs by consolidating the maintenance of all the laboratories’ instrumentation and by operating at lower margins than manufacturers’ service departments. Also, as the multi-vendor service organization’s primary customer, you can get service as quickly as you need it, without administrative delays. Unfortunately, multi-vendor organizations typically don’t have the service skills to deal with the most challenging maintenance issues, and the most specialized instrumentation, such as mass spectrometers or imaging equipment, still needs to be maintained by the original manufacturer.

Hybrid plans

For the most complex and diverse laboratories, some sort of hybrid plan is usually the best bet for meeting their needs. By picking and choosing between the available service options, the best balance of cost, convenience, speed, and consistency is achieved. However, considerable planning is necessary to get this balance just right.

Evaluating maintenance plans

For the best performance over time, a maintenance plan needs to be periodically evaluated. The maintenance options described above can be evaluated on four basic criteria, whether they are under consideration or already in operation:

1. Cost: the actual cost of the maintenance service over a year, which may be variable or fixed

2. Speed: how quickly required maintenance and repairs are done once requested

3. Consistency: the variation in repair time

4. Ease of use: how much effort is required for an analyst to place a service call

Typically there is a trade-off between the speed and the cost of a maintenance plan. Speed of response is usually the major factor in determining the overall cost of the program. On the other hand, consistency and ease of use can often be optimized, even in relatively inexpensive plans, through careful planning.

Setting priorities

Part of designing the best maintenance program for a laboratory is developing a thorough understanding of which instruments are most vital to the laboratory’s success. The most critical instrumentation is typically running frequently and has the most challenging scheduling issues. The highest-priority instrumentation also tends to be used for the greatest number of applications. A relatively uninspiring centrifuge is a critical piece of instrumentation if everyone in the lab needs it on a daily basis.

While every effort should be made to arrange for prompt service for the highest-priority instrumentation, significant savings can be realized by using lower-priority service, with its slower response times, for instrumentation that is less critical. Getting this balance just right can be tricky, since some priorities will likely change over time.

Continued improvement

Once prioritization is established, it needs to be monitored over time to make sure that the maintenance plan continues to match up with the needs of the laboratory. Long after the implementation of a maintenance program, this plan continues to be a critical element in a laboratory improvement program. For example, with a maintenance program in place, it becomes much easier to get a global view of the performance of the laboratory’s instrumentation. With centralized, long-term record keeping, it quickly becomes apparent which instrumentation is the most troublesome.

A number of steps can be taken to address problems with instrumentation that has frequent issues. The history of the instrument’s usage can be reviewed, typically quarterly, to ensure that it is being utilized appropriately. Sometimes a simple change in configuration, such as changing pump heads, can make an instrument much more reliable. Further steps could include performing additional regular maintenance to keep an instrument running reliably. Sometimes additional training of the users is also necessary to ensure that the instrument is taken care of appropriately.

Only through the combination of careful planning up front and consistent monitoring over the course of a contract can you get the most benefit from equipment maintenance management. All these efforts will be rewarded in the end, when the laboratory both saves money and has the most effective maintenance program possible. Over the long run, the challenge of establishing a well-run maintenance program will pay dividends when equipment is performing at its best.

Assigning priority levels and designing a comprehensive approach to the maintenance of laboratory instrumentation has many benefits. First, the cost savings can be considerable. In addition, you may be able to get faster service on your most important instrumentation. Finally, once you have a program set up, confusion about how to get service for different instrumentation will be a thing of the past.