Obsolescence in the Lab – and How to Defeat it

Lab instruments become obsolete for a variety of reasons. There’s planned obsolescence, in which manufacturers stop supporting one product to promote another. There’s incidental obsolescence, where an instrument is no longer compatible with modern hardware or software. But the least common type is true obsolescence, which occurs when a major technological advance renders an instrument obsolete. An instrument is truly obsolete when it is more trouble to use than to upgrade. In all other cases, there is no reason to replace an instrument that can generate accurate, reproducible data.

The fact is that very little has changed since most instruments were developed between 1920 and 1970. Most of the relevant patents have expired, so manufacturers struggle for relevance in one of two ways. High quality manufacturers promote updated models, sporting design improvements and beneficial features. Less scrupulous manufacturers go down the “proprietary” rabbit hole. After such a purchase, lab managers discover that their “upgrade” requires expensive accessories & consumables sold only by the manufacturer; or only runs on software that requires a subscription fee. They find themselves ensnared by absurd costs of ownership – hidden in micro-transactions – too late to remedy the situation.

The Myth of “End-of-Life”

Lab managers often express concern over their instruments approaching “end-of-life”. While it’s true that older instruments typically need more frequent repairs, that’s usually the result of incomplete maintenance. Aging electronics need regular overhauls: such as replacing dried out capacitors, worn out motors and fussy fuses. Trying to “fix it as you find it” will only result in frequent service calls for older instruments. Owning an instrument is similar to owning a car – it’s a significant investment, and regular maintenance will keep it operating like new for years to come. But unlike a car where a repair can sometimes exceed the cost of a new vehicle, most instruments can be completely rebuilt at a fraction of the cost of replacement.

“You can’t get parts for that anymore.”

If you have an older instrument, a service rep has probably suggested replacing it due to part availability. But most service reps double as their manufacturer’s front line sales force. A well-maintained instrument will last for decades; and the older an instrument is, the less part availability really matters. Circuit boards with surface-mount components can be easily replaced using second-hand sources like DoveBid. Older circuit boards can be repaired with parts from your local Radio Shack. There is no reason to replace an instrument that can generate accurate, reproducible data.

Incidentally Obsolete

Many instruments are retired because their software won’t run on modern operating systems. This is mainly out of concern for network security in larger enterprises, but it’s completely unnecessary and can be avoided every single time. The most straightforward approach is to implement what’s called a virtual machine, whereby one operating system runs within another. It exists as a computer within a computer – and the virtual computer can only access the resources designated. Network security is maintained without the need to purchase a new instrument.

It doesn’t matter if your instrument uses MS-DOS 6.2 and a dot-matrix spool-fed printer. There is no reason to replace an instrument that can generate accurate, reproducible data. Don’t scoff, because that’s no exaggeration – these instruments were designed in a different era. There was no digital security arms race, so data transmission was clear and uniform. Scientists were also expected to support their own instruments, so designs were simple and well documented. The older the instrument, the easier it is to redirect the data stream into a file formatted for modern data analysis software or Microsoft Excel.

Planned Obsolescence is Becoming Obsolete

Planned obsolescence is a bad practice. We’re not naming names – but if a manufacturer truly has a valuable product or service, they will stay in business without trying to force a new incarnation of the same instrument on you every five years. These examples will help in the most common situations, and hopefully spur the imagination in more unique circumstances. Whatever the specifics of your situation, Verdant’s engineers are here to help. It’s always more affordable to keep existing instrumentation in service than to purchase a new instrument.

Have Your Say

Do you have another strategy that you think should be listed? Let us know in the comments below, and share your success stories about the oldest instrument you still have in service.