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By Jason Hagerman.
For many laboratories, funding is very rarely abundant. Lab managers must often make decisions concerning which equipment must be replaced and which will need to be strecthed for another year, possibly placing limitations on lab productivity. Consider stretching your lab's budget significantly further this year by investigating whether or not the equipment needed in next year;s upgrades can be purchased second-hand. You'll not only be saving money, but also the environment.
"Right now, I'm going through a sale with a piece of equipment called a LEADseeker, which is a product from General Electric," says Chris Ayotte, Director of Operations and equipment re-seller at Harlow Scientific. "To buy this piece of equipment new, a lab would be looking at a price around $200,000. We, on the other hand, are making this deal for $85,000.00. We got this at a good deal ourselves and have been able to pass those savings on to a good client of ours."
Harlow Scientific buys, sells, rents and stores gently used scientific equipment, a niche of the lab industry that has grown increasingly appealing over the last few years.
"There is an obvious answer as to why people are looking to this option" says Ayotte. "People want to save money."
Recently, Kristina MacNaughton, a research technician at the University of Alberta, needed to make the most of her money.
"I was working for a brand new investigator, and when he got here, he was applying for grants. Our institution gives a bit of a startup fund to get equipment for the lab, but when you have to buy everything from pipettes to large machinery, it gets pricey," she says. The only way to realistically and satisfactorily furnish the new lab was to go second-hand.
Ayotte agrees that for some labs, even saving a few thousand dollars can mean the difference between getting up and running, or not.
"We sell an instrument called an M5 from a company called Molecular Devices. We sell a 2008 model like-new for $35,000," Ayotte says. "They are quoting an unused model out for $42,000 to $45,000. People who have the money will shrug off that $7,000 or so and go for the new model, but for a smaller lab, $7,000 is $7,000. For many startup companies or small laboratories, that's still significant. It amounts to money that can be spent on reagents or other stock."
Finding equipment and setting the price
Companies like Labequip Ltd. - an equipment reseller - and Harlow are constantly on the lookout for equipment that can be re-used.
"We get some of our equipment directly from manufacturers, or from dealers as overstock or demos," says Mark Rafman, President of Labequip.
A lab may be changing its experimentation process and will no longer need a particular piece of equipment; the lab may be downsizing, cutting costs by removing resource-depleting equipment; or they may have had to shut down entirely-unfortunate for the lab, but fortunate for Harlow, which buys entire labs' worth of equipment.
Second-hand suppliers generally buy equipment for cash outright, however, suppliers will also broker items and will take equipment on consignment.
"Some labs are just looking for space right away. We'll take the equipment into our facility, take it under our wing and market it on a consignment basis," says Ayotte.
After acquiring the equipment, second-hand suppliers take into account a number of factors in order to set a fair price.
"The price we pay is one of the main factors that play into the equation," says Rafman. The age and condition of the equipment and overhaul costs (including parts & labor) play into the cost as well. If the manufacturer no longer sells a model of equipment, costs are compared to a reasonably similar product from that same manufacturer, and if an item is of interest only to a narrow, specialized customer base, price is altered further.
"We decide on the pricing because we're the experts," adds Ayotte. "We know what's out there, we know how much of it is out there, and supply and demand does play a role."
Why not go directly to the lab selling the equipment?
If the prices take into account supply and demand and niche products, why would a lab manager not just find somebody looking to clear some space in their lab and buy directly from them?
"Labs in this situation are tough to come by," Ayotte says. Rafman adds, "The biggest advantage is availability. If you are really lucky, your colleague down the hall may have the right type, size and model of instrument that you're looking for. In reality, the odds are against that. We have over 6,000 items in stock, all catalogued, photographed, described and indexed in three different ways, easily accessible on our website."
It can be boiled down to the fact that there are entire businesses modeled around finding this equipment, and they are much better at it than the average person. If you do manage to find the equipment you're looking for without the help of a second-hand supplier, what assurance do you have that the equipment is in working order, and worth the price that you're paying?
Is realiability an issue?
A roadblock to many lab managers is the fear of picking up poorly functioning second hand equipment. New lab equipment, according to Ayotte, has a typical return rate of around two percent.
"With the used equipment that we refurbish and sell, we have a return rate of less than that," he says.
In order for equipment to be allowed to leave the Harlow Scientific warehouse, it needs to run like new. Technicians bring any piece of technology up to factory specifications, completely recertifying the equipment as though it had never been used before.
"We try to buy equipment that is from one to five years of age, so that we can keep repair cost down and the cost to the end user down as well," Ayotte says.
Companies like Harlow and Labequip consider cosmetic appearance, but the emphasis is on operational accuracy when refurbishing equipment.
Reputable dealers offer warranties on the refurbished equipment, giving buyers a safety net should that one-in-a-hundred faulty machine fall into their hands.
"Warranty is a crucial consideration when buying from us versus an auction or end user," says Rafman.
Three months is usually long enough to determine whether a piece of equipment is functioning properly, and is a good length of time for second-hand equipment to be covered by a warranty, says Ayotte.
Peace of mind
Knowing that re-used equipment is certified, running properly and backed up by a warranty will give the lab manager peace of mind, as will knowing that purchasing second-hand equipment is a great way to protect the environment.
All manufacturers observe best practices and environmental standards when it comes to decommissioning equipment, but labs can help them do better.
"Throwing something out is basically keeping it from going back into circulation, and that amounts to wasted resources making it in the first place," says Ayotte. Companies like us keep that equipment out of the landfill."
"By dismantling equipment, recycling for its constituent materials, thousands of dollars are converted to tens of dollars, in effect a process of reverse alchemy," says Rafman. "Refurbished equipment saves in many ways-money, carbon footprint, energy use in creating the raw materials, manufacturing the product and shipping it. There is also an indirect benefit in that more money is available to purchase other goods, stimulating the economy".
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