Why buying pre-owned lab equipment is a smart investment
Apart from the staff, a laboratory’s most important asset, on a day-to-day basis, is its equipment. And whilst all laboratories would like the latest technology and advances in instrumentation, limited budgets often restrict replacement programs. However there is an alternative, in the form of secondhand lab equipment.
The main obstacle?
For many laboratory managers and technicians, the idea of buying ‘pre-owned’ equipment may be one that they have never considered. Surely lab equipment has to be shiny and new? But how many of us buy brand new cars! The concept of ‘secondhand’ is one that we are all familiar and comfortable with in other spheres of life; look at the rise of online auction sites such as eBay. Why then has this acceptance of used equipment not generally translated to the scientific community? The reason is lack of exposure to and knowledge of this expanding market. Most organisations have a mechanism in place to redistribute surplus ‘used’ equipment between departments or divisions, even internationally. So the principle of re-using other labs’ equipment has already been established. However an obstacle still remains in many companies and hospitals to actually purchasing secondhand equipment.
Fundamental to a laboratory is the reliability and accuracy of its instrumentation. How is this achieved? By buying good quality in the first place and implementing a strict maintenance program. Surely therefore secondhand equipment falls short of the standards required by most labs? Not if purchased carefully and serviced on a regular basis. Equipment of this nature can serve a lab very well, at a fraction of the price.
The main benefit?
Clearly the primary reason for considering used equipment is cost. There can be significant savings over new, often ranging from 50% to over 80% off list price. In real terms the amounts saved are more substantial the higher the purchase price. Take a full PC-controlled HPLC system, for example. New prices can easily pass the £30,000 mark, so a 50% saving could make a large difference to the budget of most laboratories. This would mean the saved funds could be utilised for additional purchases, put towards maintenance agreements or retained for future expenditure.
Savings can also be made on an ongoing basis, by having service contracts with 3rd party suppliers. Gone are the days, for many types of equipment, of being restricted to only having the original manufacturer cover the equipment for breakdown and regular engineer visits. There are many independent, fully trained and qualified service companies in the UK offering a range of maintenance programmes to suit all budgets.
Second and third place?
Assuming you have accepted, in principle, that secondhand equipment is a viable alternative for your lab, what next? There are a number of options, each with their own advantages.
You could consider ex-demonstration equipment. This is often still within a manufacturer’s current product range and will mostly be sold with a standard warranty. Many companies will have items within their range that cannot be sold as ‘new’, either because they have been used for exhibitions or taken to customer sites as part of the sales process. The savings however are not typically of the same magnitude as genuine used equipment, and therefore this option may not scratch where the buyer is itching.
The opposite end of the spectrum is to purchase equipment direct from other laboratories. This may come about by word-of-mouth or at an auction of assets of a company that has closed down. Clearly, this is the very cheapest way of acquiring equipment. There are, however, significant disadvantages to this route, which must not be overlooked in favour of saving money. You need to have confidence that something you purchase is complete and operating well. The absence of operator or technical manuals, software disks or cables, for instance, is not insurmountable, but can be a costly and time-consuming exercise to rectify. In addition, the lack of sufficient service history or adequate proof of function should not be glossed over.
Buying equipment direct from labs therefore is a very cheap option but should only be engaged in with a full appreciation of the risks and potential obstacles.
What then is the best way forward? If we consider the example of purchasing a used car, there are two main options: buying from a private seller or from a car dealer. The former is cheaper but there are no guarantees. Once you hand over the money that’s it. Whereas with a car dealer, you should rightly expect not only that it comes with a warranty, but also that the car has been checked, serviced and even cleaned.
The same applies to buying secondhand lab equipment. Specialised dealers in the Sweden are in a position to offer an extensive range of tested and guaranteed equipment. Almost all types of lab equipment are available via this route, from autoclaves to atomic absorption spectrometers, from balances to biochemistry analysers, from centrifuges to chromatography systems.
As to age and condition, these can vary and the prices reflect this fact. Many items are available in ‘almost new’ condition, being only a few years old, but still attracting a generous reduction off the equivalent new price. Whereas older equipment may show superficial signs of age but from a functional point of view can still operate to requirements, and of course can be purchased at a significant saving.
So secondhand equipment has its place, whether you are a start-up company looking to keep initial costs down, or an established lab wanting to stretch your budget. It is even possible to rent certain types of equipment for short-term projects.
Time for a clear out?
The flip side of this subject is also something that many lab scientists may be unaware of – selling redundant equipment yourselves. All laboratories have equipment replacement programmes, even if they are non-formalised. Eventually every piece of equipment will need replacing, which leaves the question of what to do with it once it has been unplugged. For most labs there have previously been only two options: either to store it or scrap it. However both of these have distinct disadvantages.
The storage option is the easiest in the short term; it gets the equipment out of the lab. But sweeping something under the carpet has never been a good idea. Not only is storage space at a premium in most organisations, but the problem has not gone away; it is just out of sight. At some point in the future someone will have to tackle this equipment, whether it is you or one of your colleagues.
The second option traditionally employed for disposal of redundant equipment has simply been to scrap it. This may seem the best fate for ‘that old piece of kit’, but the problems with this method are very clear: Most importantly, this is not environmentally friendly. The buzzword these days is recycle, not only in domestic terms but also in business and industry. Sending equipment to landfill has never been a good idea, but even more so these days, as we are becoming more aware of our responsibility to care for our planet. Furthermore, there is legislation in place relating to the disposal of equipment, including items with potential biohazardous contents.
In addition, there is a moral aspect to simply disposing of unwanted equipment; many laboratories in developing countries would happily use what most UK users would view as scrap. Just because something has reached the end of a designated lifespan does not mean it has reached the end of its life.
Having established that storing or scrapping unwanted equipment is not ideal, the third choice, that of selling it, is by far the best way forward. Not only is it environmentally friendly and morally satisfying, it can generate useful funds for your organisation. The same companies from whom one can purchase good quality used equipment often buy redundant instrumentation in order to recondition for selling on to other labs in the UK or overseas. Even non-working systems can be of interest, as they can be stripped for valuable parts. So consider making time to clear out your storeroom or empty your cupboards and in the process make money for your lab.
Experts in their field
Elsichrom has been assist laboratories in the process of both buying and selling secondhand equipment since 1995. In the early nineties the need for a service to be offered to companies and hospitals was identified as the market for good quality used equipment was in its infancy here in Sweden. Over the years repeat business has proved that once the initial hurdle is overcome, labs are very accepting of this type of equipment and realise the major benefits. Customers range from large multi-national pharmaceuticals to small research companies; from NHS trusts to private hospitals; and even schools and universities. Equipment can be supplied fully serviced with warranty or “as-is” at an even lower price. With the change to a limited company in 1998 and the development of their website (www.colco.co.uk), Colco Scientific are now positioned in the global market to react even more effectively to both buyer and seller alike.
In conclusion, secondhand equipment can be a realistic alternative to buying new. The savings are substantial and if purchased from reliable sources, along with the instigation of regular maintenance and service programmes, such equipment can serve laboratories no matter how large or small.