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Choosing a Laboratory Equipment Supplier

Why a Partner is Better Than a Supplier

Read this before making large, technical equipment purchases!

We get it. Now, more than ever, the world is eager and hungry to start a commercial laboratory. And why not?

The sky’s practically the limit in this booming industry when it comes to making profitable labs. And, as with all trends, those who are first on the scene (and most prepared) will have massive advantages over the field.

So it absolutely makes sense to get started with your commercial lab right away.

But what chemistry lab equipment should you buy? Where do you start?

One of the reasons that this field is seeing such tremendous growth is that the potential is massive.

Another reason? It’s hard to get into the scientific space.

Unlike many other businesses, it requires deep technical knowledge. Those without the knowledge are at a sharp disadvantage…

Lab Society is a lab equipment partner, not a supplier.

While the following is quite technical, it’s well worth a read for anyone that wishes to get into the space or to buy our more expensive items.

Warning: The following is both technical and highly important!

Step 1: What’s Your Technical Knowledge Base?

Perhaps the most elusive (read: important) element in the creation and maintenance of a successful commercial laboratory is the development of a technical knowledge base.

It is vital to a lab’s success to integrate an understanding of the fundamental, scientific concepts into the processes they underlie.

For the accomplished technician, this is an intuitive reality—to positively impact a process, one should begin by conceptualizing it in terms of the science. Once scientific ground rules for a process have been established, it is a matter of applying the scientific method until a desirable outcome is reached. This generally plays out in the following sequence:

  1. What type of quantitative or qualitative relationships exists between variables in this process?
  2. Can these relationships be used as a basis for impacting process outcomes?
  3. Does manipulating a certain variable lead to a positive outcome?
  4. How can this positive outcome be consistently maintained in the process?

Without a solid foundation of technical knowledge, it becomes exceedingly difficult to navigate through these steps with any degree of success.

So, it’s clear that technical knowledge is a key aspect of a successful lab. But it is important to contextualize this concept in terms of the less-abstract components of a functioning lab.

A functional lab will require, at the bare minimum: technicians, equipment, consumables, analytics, and SOPs.

The importance of technical knowledge might seem immediately obvious in the context of these parameters—a team of technically proficient lab technicians will ensure the lab is properly operated, they will require minimal training, they can quickly troubleshoot issues, and they are constantly looking to improve and adapt processes.

Consumables provided by a technically proficient supplier will be of higher quality and improve process outcomes. Analytics are inherently an extension of technical knowledge that will correlate process outcomes to raw data and are used to develop process improvements and adjustments.

Equipment, however, is a bit different from the rest of the components of a “functional lab”.

To begin with, equipment is the point at which all the remaining operational components converge—lab technicians, consumables, analytics, SOPs—they are all dynamic elements that serve the purpose of keeping equipment in its intended operational state during a process.

Next, lab equipment exists in a wide range of technical complexities—some equipment requires a cursory glance at an operator’s manual, while other equipment requires careful training to ensure a technician can adequately operate it.

Finally, equipment is expensive, and the process of researching vendors, purchasing the right equipment, and equipment installation are often as complex as the science that underlies the design of the equipment itself.

For these reasons, it is imperative to find a suitable equipment provider; one that can provide swift and clear communication, in-depth product information, consistent quality and (most importantly) a deep technical knowledge of their product.

The process of selecting an equipment provider can play out in many ways—any engineer, lab supervisor, or another equipment procurer that spends a decent amount of time finding and purchasing equipment could probably fill volumes with anecdotes, advice, and details of the procurement process and its outcomes, so it seems worthwhile to isolate one, important aspect of this process and explore it in-depth.

For this reason, then, it is the intention of the author to convey the importance of selecting an equipment provider based on their ability to serve as a technical knowledge expert. 

This is how a potential customer can identify a good equipment provider versus a mediocre one.

Additionally, since the customer-vendor relationship evolves throughout the process of purchase-to-installation, an intuitive approach is to explore the importance of technical expertise in each of the “phases” of the transaction—this generally includes: what to expect, signs of a good vendor, and red flags to avoid.

Step 2: Preliminary Phase

In the infancy of the customer-vendor relationship, a customer reaches out to an equipment vendor with a (hopefully) basic understanding of what they want to accomplish in their lab and what equipment they think is suitable for this purpose.

  • In this phase, a customer should generally ask some technical questions about process outcomes – i.e. How much product can I generate with this equipment per day?
  • They should ask how feasibly the equipment can be integrated into their existing workspace – i.e. What utilities and how much space are required?
  • A more experienced customer might also ask some questions regarding the quality of the equipment  i.e. What materials is it constructed of, what certifications does it come with?

At this point, perhaps the most important in the development of a customer-vendor relationship, the equipment provider should:

  1. respond in a timely manner,
  2. provide an adequate level of detail in their response to technical questions,
  3. and demonstrate a willingness to develop a working relationship with the customer.
Let’s evaluate these criteria more in-depth:
  1. If a vendor is taking too long to respond, at this stage, it is a good indicator that the communication will not improve over time. Think about it, the amount of “back-and-forth” needed to procure a piece of equipment is quite large; calls, emails, meetings—if correspondence moves at too slow a pace, it could take months to receive a working piece of equipment. That means months of lost potential profit.
  2. In the context of technical expertise, the level of detail provided by a vendor requires some finesse—there is no need to bog down a customer with volumes of data and technically complex information, but a customer should also be wary of a vendor who fails to open the door to a technical conversation.
  3. This truth can be restated as such: if a vendor is experienced and sells a good product, they will have encountered this phase of communication several times—enough to ensure that they provide adequate information and clarification, and enough to ensure that they open the door to a technical conversation with the customer.

Look for a vendor who: is able to quickly and comfortably respond to relevant technical questions posed by the customer. This is not to say that the vendor should be able to recite technical specifications from memory (or explain complex theoretical fundamentals of a piece of equipment), but they should be able to give the customer an idea of how the equipment works, what standard of quality the equipment has been built to, and how easily integrate-able it is into an existing lab space.

They should also be able to provide some general timelines that capture the progress from purchase to installation.

It is important to remember that it is the responsibility of the vendor to ensure that the customer is comfortable purchasing a piece of equipment—if there is an unanswered question, ask it!

If the vendor cannot provide the answers needed to give a customer some assurance of their product’s functionality, it might be time to look elsewhere!

Step 3: Quote Phase

This phase of the customer-vendor relationship might not seem as technically demanding as others, but the experienced customer can certainly be taken advantage of it in this regard.

First, it is imperative that a customer thoroughly discusses each line-item with their vendor. Specifically, the customer should discuss the line item with the vendor until they feel comfortable purchasing it.

Some potential questions include:

  • What is this line item?
  • How does this component influence the process?
  • Why is this component important to the overall success of the process?

Again, the technical expertise of the vendor is critical in this phase of communication. If a vendor can adequately explain the purpose of each line-item to their customer, there is a good chance that they’re aware of the scientific fundamentals that drive the process.

If a vendor is aware of the fundamental science of their equipment, it seems more likely that they can guide customer decision-making in a direction that will improve process outcomes.

Finally, and most simply, if a vendor cannot answer technical questions regarding each line-item, why is it included in the quote in the first place?

If it gets to this point, it might be time to look elsewhere…

Step 4: Installation and Beyond

Once the equipment has been purchased and delivered, the vendor will often come on-site to provide installation guidance and train technicians on equipment use.

Ultimately, the purpose of this phase is to ensure installation is carried out appropriately and that the customer is aware of the proper operating procedures for the equipment.

Not surprisingly, if a vendor is lacking technical expertise, it will be very apparent (albeit, much too late) at this phase.

There are several factors that are shared by technically adept vendors:

  • The installation proceeds according to well-developed instructions. The vendor does not need to deviate during the installation of the equipment.
  • The equipment is thoroughly tested. It is demonstrated to operate properly and meet baseline requirements (as specified before purchase).
  • The vendor adequately trains the operator on the safe and effective operation of the equipment.
  • The vendor provides insight on how to extend the lifetime of the equipment and adequate maintenance procedures.
  • The vendor answers any lingering questions or concerns to the satisfaction of the customer.

Ultimately, when purchasing equipment from technical experts, a customer should feel increasingly confident and cautiously optimistic that the vendor is going to provide the best equipment for the process.

They should feel as if potential problems will be adequately and painlessly alleviated with the help of the vendor, and they should feel as if their money is being put to good use.

If years of operations engineering have taught us anything, it’s this: if we purchase equipment from a vendor about which we feel uneasy, it will definitely cause problems down the line.

As nuanced and technically complex as the preceding topic may be, the most appropriate takeaway is:

Purchase equipment from a technically knowledgeable, trustworthy provider that supplies a demonstrably high-quality product.

When a company has an employee base that is passionate about the application of very specialized knowledge – like the chemistry of botanical extractions – that expertise translates into equipment that works well.

It is no secret that many equipment providers are in the business of equipment sales for easy markup, low overhead, and high potential margins. Most couldn’t care less about whether their equipment is of superior quality or whether or not they are on the cutting edge of the industry.

They, like many would-be lab owners themselves, just see it all as an opportunity to make a quick buck.

As our industry has matured, however, commercial lab operators (at all scales) have become wary of knowledge-lacking equipment providers, and it’s important to take the time to identify the companies that employ experts in the field.

So, how does one methodically determine the technical expertise of a potential supplier? See above.

As a bonus, here are some questions worth asking most equipment providers:

  1. Given a process, there are many equipment types that are intended to accomplish a process step. Which one should be purchased?
  2. Given an equipment class, there is a wide range of quality and a wide range of price. How does one determine the ideal balance between them?
  3. Once the equipment is purchased, will the vendor assemble it, train technicians and guarantee its proper operation?
  4. During the equipment’s lifecycle (from installation to salvaging) how will the system be maintained?
  5. Will the vendor provide quick troubleshooting assistance and resolve equipment issues that cannot be solved in-house?