Sophisticated analytical instruments are gaining entry into all laboratories at an unbelievable pace. The reasons are many but the prominent ones are the availability of advanced applications software requiring little or no operator intervention once the operating conditions are set. Advanced statistical treatment of data and calculations are carried out in seconds and results along with graphics get displayed on the screen or display panel. Such features make the life of the analyst easy and permit availability of spare time for other routine activities. The operator need not be present all the time as auto-sampling capabilities permit unattended operation even overnight.
Sophistication, however, comes with a price in terms of higher maintenance costs. Such systems are more sensitive to environmental conditions in the laboratory as well as changes in power supply. These days all instrument manufacturers provide power stabilization features, self- correction and safety interlocks. However, breakdowns often lead to a stoppage of work and associated frustrations. In contrast, less sophisticated instruments such as pH meters, weighing balances, sonicators, centrifuges, magnetic stirrers, hot air ovens and even UV-Vis spectrophotometers are more rugged in comparison and breakdowns are generally rare.
Sophisticated instruments, though more delicate, can give long service life if handling and care are not compromised. The article covers some of the relevant aspects and offers some useful suggestions.
Handling and Care
Handling is a critical issue and proper guidelines should be followed during packing and transportation. Such instruments need to be placed on wooden or plastic pellets appropriately secured to the bottom and packed in wooden or hard cardboard boxes with shock-proof thermocol packing to prevent damage to delicate parts during transportation. On reaching the laboratory the boxes should be unpacked in presence of supplier representative and any damages should be recorded for the purpose of replacements. On unpacking the instrument should be carefully lifted and gently placed on the workbench.
All sophisticated instruments require regulated environmental controls such as dust free air conditioning, temperature and humidity control, power stabilization and protection from voltage surges.This necessitates installation of dehumidifiers, proper ventilation and air conditioning systems, UPS systems, etc. Such infrastructure should be made available even before installation and commissioning are carried out.
Adherence to prescribed maintenance schedules in spite of heavy workloads and other pre-occupations contribute significantly to a smooth and trouble-free operation of analytical instruments. Such schedules should also include replacement of worn out components, seals, and valves, replacement of lamps depending on their useful life, inspection of cables and tubings for any damage caused by rodents and condition of oil in oil sumps, etc. At times maintenance schedules require services of experts from suppliers of such instruments.
Highly sophisticated instruments should be handled by specially trained and authorized persons only. This is essential so that expensive repairs and loss of productivities can be avoided. Even trained persons require skills upgradation when new accessories are added or new software versions are introduced.
Sophisticated analytical instruments require heavy initial capital investments. In addition getting the installation sites ready involves additional expenses on utility requirements. Further repairs and service maintenance contracts prove to be expensive in comparison with routine general purpose instruments. It must be kept in mind that repairs can get held up due to the need for critical component parts which can be procured only from original manufacturers through lengthy import procedures.
It can be summarized that the benefits offered by sophisticated analytical instruments far outweigh the operational and maintenance costs provided maintenance schedules are followed and care is exercised in their handling and operation. The initial investments and maintenance costs are paid back in due course of time when the instruments are looked after with required care over their lifespan.