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Instrument Supplier Issues

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From 2019 it has been a common topic of discussion amongst lab folk to bemoan the current situation with regard to the supply of analytical instruments and associated consumables. The combined impact of Brexit and COVID, compounded more recently by some alarming global politics and the impact upon, amongst other things, the cost of fuel, the availability of specific electronic components and the restrictions to international transport has meant that what started as an irritation is now having a significant impact upon laboratory productivity and cost to market.

In 2020, an issue was raised to the AGS Laboratory Working Group by one of its members regarding the difficulties in obtaining consumable parts for equipment used in geotechnical testing, a problem echoed by multiple parties – not only the availability of the parts, but also the quality of the parts as and when they could be sought. As a group we looked to collate examples of specific problems and then go back to the market to try and ascertain root cause and hopefully some solutions. Some examples of that list can be seen below:

  • CBR Moulds received without a base, collar and set of spanners rendering them useless,
  • Moulds have standard requirements with measured tolerances given which are being failed,
  • CBR rammers supplied with the top fixed so that it cannot be removed – so it isn’t then possible to check/confirm compliance with the standards,
  • New balance equipment failed calibration and had to be returned to supplier unused,
  • MCV machine new purchase not working on receipt, returned to the supplier,
  • Electrical equipment supplied without plugs,
  • Hand held compactors that fail the weight criteria,
  • 5-6 month lead times on delivery of analytical equipment compared to 2-3 month historical precedent,
  • Long lead times in delivery of routine consumables from outside UK,
  • Lack of available support and engineers for maintenance and prevention,
  • Sizeable price increases across almost all sectors.

Following discussion with suppliers held within the working group and by members as part of their everyday lives a range of reasons have been cited and even a couple of potential ways forward to help future proof some of these issues (and we didn’t include reversing Brexit as it feels a little outside the scope of AGS….)

I would be surprised if there was a company in the UK, if not the wider world that hasn’t been impacted in terms of staffing and practical logistics by COVID over the last 3 years. We all took significant measures to ensure safe working practices (home/remote working, shift patterns, altered procedures), financial stability (furlough) and customer retention (adapted working practices) and the impact of that was keenly felt. Right now, in the final quarter of 2022 the restrictions are largely reduced but there is still a considerable impact upon staff absence that is attributable to COVID.

But how about outside the UK? One recent conversation highlighted that changes to import/export protocols in China implemented as a direct result of COVID combined with shortages of electrical components were causing 2-3 month delays in the manufacturing process at the operational bases in the far east – for anyone who has had a car from Korea on order for the last year will testify this is not an industry specific problem!

A little closer to home, we are seeing issues with European suppliers struggling to navigate the amended trade and transit protocols post Brexit, with parts and equipment either taking significantly longer to receive, even if it is available. One supplier even refusing to house parts in the UK and when questioned citing difficulties around the ‘rules’ of Brexit and even less helpfully that “we voted for it”…

One of the biggest issues with the supply of manufactured parts is the now reliance on the world outside of UK and Europe, with both trade restrictions and cost implications meaning that UK suppliers can either no longer provide the elements themselves in a cost effective way, or can no longer use their legacy suppliers and are having to look further and wider to remain operational. Not necessarily an issue, but what this has brought with it, and is often a consequence of outsourcing on a budget, is that quality issues have been introduced.

A lot of the parts needed for geotechnical methodologies are very clearly specified and linked to a formal standard, and the acceptable tolerances are purposefully low. In multiple instances members have flagged (and see the bullet point list above) the receipt of such goods which are outside of spec ‘out of the box’ or come incomplete or in some other way unusable. One UK based supplier was able to join a Working Group meeting during 2021 to try and shed some light onto this new and re-occurring issue and as suggested above, pushed blame directly to the fact the traditional manufacturing sources had become unavailable and they were reliant on these new suppliers for whom the relevant standards to which we must comply were not applicable or certainly not a requirement. Solutions? Increase cost, at which point they could explore new or legacy suppliers but that cost would have to be accepted across the industry and out to the labs client base.

And unfortunately any conversation on cost at the current time can’t ignore the current economic status in the UK and abroad, energy crisis and spiraling costs for pretty much everything in our personal and professional lives. Geo-environmental testing has traditionally been a race to the bottom price wise, a 20 year trend that has to end with the risk to quality, both in terms of service but also in the supply of essential goods and consumables threatening to have a considerable impact upon the output.

But outside of price, if not tangentially related to it, is there anything else we can look at to try and ensure a sustainable quality standard? Two potential areas that have been discussed are:

  • Certification – as an industry we could approach major suppliers to adopt a form of certification, effectively providing some additional guarantees on the quality of items supplied and the now hidden supply chain. This would require considerable organization and buy in, plus no doubt increase in costs to ensure compliance plus a cost of arbitration but from a supplier perspective, it is common in other industries to hold and advertise compliance with formal certification as a way of distinguishing yourself from competition and pushing revenue generation
  • Clarity in the supply process – a push for clarity on behalf of suppliers and also responsibility of purchasers to clearly identify what is being sold, what is needed and to which formal standards it is accredited. A lot of equipment now is identified on the website of the supplier in line with which specific standards (ASTM, EN, ISO, BS, etc.) it complies and for which methodology it is applicable so a buyer can make informed decisions as to what they are ordering. A fairly straightforward ‘vote with your feet’ approach to those who don’t would put pressure on to ensure updates are made and we have a level playing field, and some accountability for supplying the right kit. Supply of equipment claiming compliance and clearly failing could then be taken up as breach of the Trade Descriptions Act, whereas products that promise nothing and under deliver are more difficult to challenge…

I think we are all aware that the world (politically and economically) is in a state of transition but we are several years into a period of history in which changes are forced upon us and the impact of many of these changes has been negative for our industry. Through AGS and the working groups we can support you and your business in helping apply pressure to the industry or market place and with a coordinated front may hopefully drive some positive change.

Article provided by Will Fardon (Technical Director, Chemtech Environmental Limited) on behalf of the AGS Laboratories Working Group