Current and future trends need to be considered when assessing equipment needs, says Steve Hamilton, Ph.D., SLAS Director of Education. "Many scientists are focused on their immediate need when purchasing laboratory equipment. They often don't look ‘over the horizon' in an attempt to predict how potential changes might influence their immediate purchase plans," Hamilton cautions. He advises SLAS members to consider the following before making new purchases.
1) Will there be a need to adapt the equipment to new and different procedures? Are those procedures likely to be more or less complex than the ones currently used?
For example, a lab might be faced today with automating a non-homogenous assay such an ELISA assay, which involves many different distinct stages; but these procedures might be modified over time toward a more homogenous assay environment, where all the assay components are in place at the same stage. Consider how such a change would affect automation requirements.
2) Is the scientific procedure you're involved with early or late in its evolutionary curve?
Imagine you were involved in sequencing DNA in the late 1980s. Such work was relatively new at that time, and it would have been a good prediction that the technology would evolve rapidly over the next decade. The availability of potential instrument updates becomes very important in such an environment.
3) Is there likely to be a change in performance criteria over time?
If, for example, you are thinking about purchasing an automated liquid handling workstation, are future procedures likely to trend toward smaller liquid volumes? If so, is the system you're considering adaptable to smaller volumes and/or smaller liquid-containing vessels or wells?
4) Is the workload for a given instrument likely to grow?
How much expanded work capacity does the instrument have? If you are buying an automated liquid handling work station to perform a series of microplate-based liquid transfers, should you consider adding an optional plate stacker to allow microplates to be stored and accessed automatically, external to the workstation deck? Doing so might easily increase five- to 10-fold the number of plates that can be processed in a batch.
5) Will there be increased pressure for faster turnaround of whatever the instrument produces?
For an instrument that produces some type of analytical result, a key factor in turnaround time may be data processing and analysis. What options exist that may impact this?
6) Will there be increased demand for the equipment to perform under different circumstances from the usual?
If you're purchasing an automated sample processing system, is it likely that the need to process samples in an unattended mode--for instance overnight—will increase in the future? What features might need to be added to the system to allow for an extended unattended operation?
7) What is the potential need for equipment maintenance and repair, and how sensitive is your operation to downtime?
Some instruments may be producing results to support a critical process; therefore, little or no downtime is acceptable. For example, if you are doing a sample prep procedure for an assay that provides key data about a manufacturing process, it may not be acceptable for that data to suddenly become unavailable. In that instance, downtime has to be carefully scheduled and unanticipated downtime is problematic. In such cases, provisions must be made for a high level of repair support, up to or including an on-site store of critical parts and/or on-site service staff.
8) Do you envision the need for potential systems upgrades? What impact might they have on your operation?
Some instrument upgrades, such as the addition of variable span multi-channel dispensing to a fixed span dispenser, are not technically possible after purchase or cannot be done in the field. Can actions at the time of purchase make future upgrades more or less feasible?
9) Where is the instrument in its product life cycle?
Newer models will likely have the latest technology, more potential upgrades to improve performance and a longer technical-support window. However, newer models also may have more inherent bugs that can impact reliability, and thinner early technical support. Which matters most to you?
10) Will the vendor selling this equipment be around for a number of years?
One can never predict this for sure, but long-established vendors at least have a track record. If there is concern about vendor longevity, consider hedging your bets by purchasing a store of parts, or asking for critical software source code to be placed in escrow—and spend the time to develop more internal expertise on such equipment.
July 6, 2011