Seller beware: what do buyers of scientific equipment want?

By Melissa Trudinger
Thursday, 10 April, 2003

Keeping up with the Joneses has become critical in research, where the race to achieve an important result not only guarantees a high-profile paper, but in the increasingly commercial world can provide an edge over a competing interest.

And while Australian research dollars might not stretch as far as scientists would like them to, savvy spending is important. The relationship between a research enterprise, whether it is a small university lab with limited funding or a well-funded company, and their equipment suppliers, is one of the most important parts of achieving successful outcomes.

As a rule, Australian researchers are pretty happy with the equipment suppliers they deal with, and tend to form good relationships with the reps and tech support departments. For their part, suppliers are becoming very flexible, allowing companies to trial new equipment to ensure it is suitable for the intended use before purchase.

"It's very much a 'try before you buy' deal at the moment, especially for pricier equipment," says Dr Deborah Rathjen, the CEO of South Australian biotech Bionomics. "It's more of a buyers' market, even though buyers are being careful."

Rathjen said that in the current cutthroat environment, even the more consumable items are price-negotiable. And sometimes suppliers allow companies or labs to lease equipment for a while before outright purchase, according to Prof Peter Leedman, the deputy director of the Western Australian Institute of Medical Research.

And opportunities to save a buck or two are not the only concessions a supplier can make to ensure a sale.

"Suppliers have had to realise they can't just trade on their name," says Dr Sue Forrest, the director of the Australian Genome Research Facility (AGRF). "You need opportunities to go overseas [to evaluate equipment], or send samples overseas -- physical access is the key."

The other important factor in the purchase of capital equipment is the after-sale service, be that purchase of consumables, training, rapid breakdown service or routine maintenance.

"With the larger items of capital equipment, the level of after-sale support and training is quite high at the moment," Rathjen says. This support, she says, can be the differentiating factor between suppliers of similar equipment.

According to Greg Hall, who has the hands-on responsibility of purchasing and maintaining equipment for Bionomics, the after-sales service is absolutely critical, particularly for a company working to internal deadlines and milestones. Hall does not buy equipment from suppliers if there is not a qualified service engineer based in Adelaide that can be on the job within hours.

It's a philosophy that stems from his experience in diagnostics laboratories, where he says it is important to get instruments back on line in the shortest possible time. "It's absolutely mandatory for capital equipment," he says.

Even in labs where same-day service is not as critical, a commitment to send a technician out to solve the problem within 24 hours is a must, says WAIMR's Leedman.

"I think all organisations have at some time had problems with service after purchase," says Forrest. "But you have to recognise that Australia is a small market."

Training is another aspect that labs take into account, especially with the complex and powerful analytical instruments available now. Leedman says that with a recent purchase of microarray equipment, the suppliers were really keen to set up training for the institute's staff. "They've really been very proactive," he says.

One of the biggest changes to the way labs buy equipment has come about because of access to information via the internet. Once upon a time, sales reps used to visit labs constantly, plying their wares. But these days scientists are usually very up to date with the latest and greatest, and get their information from a variety of sources, including the web.

"You don't get as many reps travelling from lab to lab as there used to be," says Bionomics' Rathjen. The company does its own research and makes direct contact with the appropriate suppliers, who may be in Australia or overseas.

"We try to source who else has that equipment in Australia, if it is in the neighbourhood, we might be able to share it, and we seek references from other labs," she says.

While there might not be as many sales reps doing the rounds, scientists find they get to know who is who, and develop a good relationship with them.

"Most researchers have a good idea of what equipment is coming up. And it's important to develop a trusting relationship with the suppliers," says Forrest.

So how does the head of a lab or a company's purchasing manager make the decision on what to buy?

"What we've usually done are quite extensive and detailed trials," says Forrest. Among the characteristics looked for are reliability, capabilities and outcomes, she says. The bottom line is not just price, she says; support, service and how a potential purchase fits with in with the pipeline all are taken into account before a decision is made.

In addition, Forrest says it is important to know what new or improved technology is coming along down the track, and whether purchasing a particular item will become limiting in the future. Flexibility, opportunities for expansion and purchase of add-ons all need to be taken into account, as does an idea of what might become important for the lab's activities in the future.

"Just because we're using someone's technology at the moment doesn't mean it is going to answer all the questions we might ask," she says.

Bionomics facilities manager Hall says it is important to have as much information as possible about how the equipment will be used before going to the supplier, to ensure that the best decision is made from the competing choices.

"Service prior to purchase is always useful as the supplier needs to match their product to your needs," he says.

Dr Stephen Turner, a senior researcher in Prof Peter Doherty's lab at Melbourne University, has recent experience in purchasing equipment -- he was responsible for setting up the lab last year when Doherty moved it back to Australia from the US.

"Most of the decisions were based on prior experience," Turner says. For example, he says, he was after specific brands of certain items, such as the tissue culture hoods used for the lab's immunological research. Other items were trialled first, then if they suited the needs of the researchers, cost became the issue.

"Generally speaking it's been a positive experience. The thing we find difficult is the time it takes to get something in, or sometimes for someone to come in," he says.

In fact, the lead time required to obtain some instruments and capital equipment can be considerable. Large, expensive equipment sourced from overseas can take anywhere from weeks to months to be delivered and installed, particularly if built to order. And some sophisticated instruments, such as the powerful NMR spectrometers that have been ordered for the Bio21 Institute, require custom-built facilities and a lengthy commissioning or validation period before they can be used.

In the end, the relationship between labs and suppliers is a two way street -- they need each other to survive and grow, says Forrest.

"There's a much more mature attitude these days. It's a shared goal to keep Australia up to speed," she says.

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