Balancing rapidly evolving technology with financial reality or in other words “please don’t tell me my big fancy machine is obsolete.”
As a general question, applicable to many situations in our current lives: what do we do when technology evolves so quickly that our expensive gadgets become obsolete (even though they still work), and the cost of replacing them is too high and/or out or reach? A dilemma that although a product still functions dependably, there are no longer parts available to fix it or service contracts to support it. We might think that this mostly applies to smaller items such as cell phones, tablets, computers and even software, but what if the item in question is a very expensive piece of laboratory equipment that supports a rapidly evolving technology?
I was recently following a conversation on the Purdue Cytometry Group mailing list (email@example.com). This is a great resource used by cytometrists in the US and internationally, as a general community chat board, a place to ask for help troubleshooting equipment and assays, job postings, inquires about reagents etc. and its members are amazingly free with information). One topic on the chat board was as follows:
“Several years ago, a major manufacturer of flow cytometers, Becton-Dickinson (BD), announced it would no longer produce parts or provide maintenance for one of its popular flow cytometers, the LSR II. Introduced in 2004, the BD™ LSR II heralded a new era in flow cytometry: The LSRII was initially advertised as “The Most Flexible Flow Cytometer Available. The first and only air-cooled, four-laser bench-top flow cytometer with the ability to acquire up to 18 colors”.
I’ve worked in the biotech industry for a number of years and was in a group that purchased a new LSRII in 2007. My first impression of the LSRII was that it was a big gray box that didn’t look like any of the other flow cytometers I’d previously used. It was affectionately called it the “coffin” by a few at my company. Imposing at first, I learned to love its capabilities and found it to be a dependable workhorse.
Flow cytometers are expensive (in 2007 our LSRII was ~ 300K, the cytometer replacing the LSRII, the LSR Fortessa, is ~380K) and complex machines, supported by service contracts ($30-50K depending upon number of lasers etc.), to keep them up and running. BD service engineers service flow cytometers that are purchased through BD, but not always for BD cytometers that are purchased used/second hand or for equipment that is no longer supported. In this case, people have to scramble to find an independent contractor or a third party company with access to parts and the knowhow to service the instruments. Cytek, another company that manufactures its own flow cytometers, also services LSRIIs, but has recently made the following statement:
“BD system components have become increasingly difficult to obtain from the original manufacturer due to technology obsolescence. After 2020, time and material service in support of BD instruments and options will continue as long as resources are available”.
This left LSRII users in a tough spot: owning a functioning, expensive machine that is suddenly obsolete, and not being in a position to replace it with a newer, even more expensive machine. One user on the cytometry board summed up the situation succinctly:
“It is hard to think parts are not available or not worth manufacturing when a sea of LSR II are out there. But if indeed no new parts available, I’m imagining saying goodbye as I said goodbye to FACSVantage. We don’t know what to do next.
The flow core service needs to continue, but the money for replacing them all is nowhere at least now to be found.”
Many LSRII users found themselves in the same boat and wrote in with similar comments. And, thanks to the many people who did, the following was recently posted on the board:
I would like to let you know that our collaborative effort asking BD to reconsider ending service on the LSRII has been successful. I received the letter below from BD stating that they will continue to service the LSRII through September 30, 2022.
Thank you to all who participated and to those at BD who were receptive!”
The following was attached:
Dear Valued BD LSR II Customer:
We are writing to inform you about important updates regarding service and support for your BD® LSR II or SORP LSR II flow cytometer.
Previously, BD communicated end of service contracts for BD® LSR II or SORP LSR II systems were to take place on September 30, 2020.
Our customers spoke and we listened. Today, we are pleased to announce that instrument service for the BD® LSR II or SORP LSR II systems has been extended. The last date to purchase an annual service contract will be September 30, 2021, with the service contract ending September 30, 2022.
If your instrument is not under a BD service contract and you are interested in putting it under contract, please contact BD Service Contract Administration for more details at 877.232.8995, prompt 4 then prompt 3.
After September 30, 2022, service for BD® LSR II or SORP LSR II systems will be charged as time and materials, and will be dependent on parts and personnel availability.
We appreciate your business and look forward to serving you in the years to come.
Global Product Manager
BD Life Sciences – Biosciences
In this case, thanks to a grassroots plea to the manufacturer, LSRIIs will be in use at least through September 2022. This story has a happy ending, for now. But, it does highlight an increasingly common predicament in science. As laboratory managers, we are often faced with difficult decisions of whether to stay with the current instrumentation we have which is reliable and already supported by SOPs and personnel training or trying to keep up with rapidly evolving technology that may or may not be widely adopted by the field. As with any decision, a plan to evaluate the pros and cons of such a transition as well as a multiyear capital plan for managing obsolescence may be prudent. We would be interested in other feedback from other flow cytometry users on how they have or will manage the “end of life” of their favorite instrument.
FCSL is a contract flow cytometry lab with expertise in complex flow cytometry panel & assay design, including Receptor Occupancy Assays (ROA), Immunophenotyping, Cell Signaling, Cell Cycle Analysis, and Cell Functional Assays. We routinely run up to 10-color flow cytometry assays in support of basic research, clinical and non-clinical studies and are experts in the validation of flow cytometry assays. We believe that flow cytometry can be used to answer any question, and solve any problem in the drug development process. If your research requires the power of flow cytometry, contact us for more information.