Getting A New Flow Cytometer? Try Before You Buy (And 2 Other Tips)

One question that I get asked on a regular basis is what flow cytometer should I purchase?  It’s not as simple as you might imagine. In fact, you need to treat this process as carefully as you would a valuable experiment. There are a lot of variables, and if you’re not asking yourself a huge list of questions, you may miss something critical that will result in the instrument being less than desired. This is a shortlist of questions to ask as you go about the process – your 3-part pocket guide to acquiring the flow cytometer that’s right for you. 

1. Look closely at the role your instrument will fill.

User needs must always be evaluated first and foremost. Your needs will help define the rest of the process.  Consider the type of experiments to be conducted, the number of parameters that will be needed, the size of the targets and more.  After that comes the tricky part is predicting future user needs. The chief question to ask is, can it be expanded in capacity and capabilities as the research needs change? Develop good tracking metrics on current trends,  and ask current users about their plans for the next few years. Keep in mind that if you’ll need the cytometer for clinical samples, there are government requirements to meet. 

As you think about all this, take some time to evaluate your budget. You don’t want to discover the perfect system before you realize it’s out of your price range. And the instrument itself is not the only financial concern – there is also the cost of renovation.   And how well can your intended housing space accommodate potential system requirements? You might need to place the new instrument in a new, more suitable area, which could require expensive restructuring – a sum like $100,000 is not out of the realm. Ask the vendor for the site installation guide and partner with members of your facility who can help you make the right choice of location. 

And don’t forget to consider a possible partnership with another regional facility. If that facility has access to the instrument(s) you need, you have less of a reason to spend a massive sum on a new flow cytometer. 

2. Don’t shy from the demo.

Never purchase a flow cytometer without some hands-on testing. The demo is a key part of the process – it ensures that you get a strong feel for the instrument before making a big financial commitment. Ideally, you can arrange a demo in your facility. If you can’t test the system in your own facility, visit a site that is running the system. If visiting another facility, find a way to talk with users who are currently working with the instrument. Get their opinions on installation, operation and after the sale support. 

Plan to spend approximately 1 week evaluating the instrument, during which time you need to test it with as many different kinds of samples as possible. In fact, you ought to find the most challenging for testing. That way, you’ll know what it can do in the toughest of situations. A good guideline for instrument demonstration is to find a way to “break” the system – see how easy it was to troubleshoot and fix the issue. Don’t literally try to damage the unit, but explore its limitations and find out exactly what it can handle. Be sure to ask other testers from your group about their own experiences with the demo unit too. 

Additionally, there is the matter of software. Poorly designed software can absolutely ruin your user experience with a cytometer, so software testing isn’t something you should skip. Review the software and keep in mind how you might train future users to operate it. You should also learn how other software packages interact with this instrument’s software. Are certain antivirus programs better for this system? How can access be controlled or usage tracked? If your facility tracks and registers users via software like Stratocore’s PPMS or iLabs system, will that cause any issues? Examine the unit from every possible perspective now in order to avoid problems once it’s too late.

That includes a final budget consideration. Will new personnel be needed to operate the system? Will it have specialized needs? Will the new system be under a service contract after the first year? There is plenty to consider before making your final choice.

3. Get to know your friendly service engineers.

There is no avoiding downtime. All instruments must be serviced and repaired every so often. Know your service engineers and their average response time. How far away are the nearest service engineers? What is their response time? How long will it take for them to acquire new parts in the event of replacement? It’s a great idea to build and maintain a positive relationship with the service team. They can help you learn to diagnose (and even repair) smaller issues, which reduces time spent waiting when there’s a problem.

Even heavy repairs can be valuable to you though. If you take part in the diagnosis and repair process—assuming the service team approves—you may gain valuable insight into how the system works. It certainly doesn’t hurt to understand more about the inner workings of your flow cytometer, which is a good way to gain troubleshooting skills. If you become sufficiently competent at servicing the basic issues with the instrument yourself, the service team will know that if you’re calling, it must mean real trouble with the unit. Sometimes, you simply have to call a pro, so get to know yours and build a rapport.

At the end of the day, instrument vendors make excellent products. You’re probably not going to purchase a “bad” flow cytometer, but you may end up getting one that doesn’t mesh well with your facility. Avoid looking at marketing material, as this will only skew your opinion toward the outcome desired by some sales team. Think carefully about the role your unit must fill. Consider your budget and what you may have to spend just to accommodate a new instrument. Get your hands on a machine and spend time with real samples. Apply good judgment and stringent testing methods. And pay attention to the human element – get to know your service engineers. You never know when they may be the one thing standing between you and the completion of critical research.

To learn more about important control measures for your flow cytometry lab, and to get access to all of our advanced materials including 20 training videos, presentations, workbooks, and private group membership, get on the Flow Cytometry Mastery Class wait list.

Join Expert Cytometry's Mastery Class
Tim Bushnell, PhD
Tim Bushnell, PhD

Tim Bushnell holds a PhD in Biology from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is a co-founder of—and didactic mind behind—ExCyte, the world’s leading flow cytometry training company, which organization boasts a veritable library of in-the-lab resources on sequencing, microscopy, and related topics in the life sciences.

Similar Articles

Which Fluorophores To Use For Your Microscopy Experiment

Which Fluorophores To Use For Your Microscopy Experiment

By: Heather Brown-Harding, PhD

Fluorophore selection is important. I have often been asked by my facility users which fluorophore is best suited for their experiments. The answer to this is mostly dependent on whether they are using a widefield microscope with set excitation/emission cubes or a laser based system that lets you select the laser and the emission window. Once you have narrowed down which fluorophores you can excite and collect the correct emission, you can further refine the specific fluorophore that is best for your experiment.  In this blog  we will discuss how to determine what can work with your microscope, and how…

4 No Cost Ways To Improve Your Microscopy Image Quality

4 No Cost Ways To Improve Your Microscopy Image Quality

By: Heather Brown-Harding, PhD

Image quality is critical for accurate and reproducible data. Many people get stuck on the magnification of the objective or on using a confocal instead of a widefield microscope. There are several other factors that affect the image quality such as the numerical aperture of the objective, the signal-to-noise ratio of the system, or the brightness of the sample.  Numerical aperture is the ability of an objective to collect light from a sample, but it contributes to two key formulas that will affect your image quality. The first is the theoretical resolution of the objective. It is expressed with the…

What Is Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence (TIRF) Microscopy & Is It Right For You?

What Is Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence (TIRF) Microscopy & Is It Right For You?

By: Heather Brown-Harding, PhD

TIRF is not as common as other microscopy based techniques due to certain restrictions. We will discuss these restrictions, then analyze why it might be perfect for your experiment.  TIRF relies on an evanescent wave, created through a critical angle of coherent light (i.e. laser) that reaches a refractive index mismatch.  What does it mean in practice?  A high angle laser reflects off the interface of the coverslip and the sample. Although the depth that this wave penetrates is dependent on the wavelength of the light, in practice it is approximately 50-300nm from the coverslip. Therefore, the cell membrane is…

5 Drool Worthy Imaging Advances Of 2020

5 Drool Worthy Imaging Advances Of 2020

By: Heather Brown-Harding, PhD

2020 was a difficult year for many, with their own research being interrupted- either by lab shutdowns or recruitment into the race against COVID-19. Despite the challenges, scientists have continued to be creative and have pushed the boundaries of what is possible. These are the techniques and technologies that every microscopist was envious of in 2020. Spatially Resolved Transcriptomics Nature Methods declared that spatially resolved transcriptomics was the 2020 method of the year. These are a  group of methods that combine gene expression with their physical location. Single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNAseq) was originally developed for cells that had been dissociated…

5-Point Guide To Buying A New Microscope For Your Lab

5-Point Guide To Buying A New Microscope For Your Lab

By: Heather Brown-Harding, PhD

Have you ever noticed how painful it can be to purchase a new microscope? It would be hard to miss – this can be a frustrating process. A lot of scientists and students consider the new microscope hunt quite scary for a variety of reasons. It might be that you’re worried you won’t get the right microscope and that you’ll regret it, or you may find that dealing with salespeople, in general, makes you kind of uncomfortable. But remember, salespeople are just human beings like you and me, and if we can treat them as such, the whole process of…

Ask These 7 Questions Before Purchasing A Flow Cytometer

Ask These 7 Questions Before Purchasing A Flow Cytometer

By: Tim Bushnell, PhD

I am still convinced that my first cell sorter was possessed. The number of issues that I had with the system remains hard for me to believe, even after all these years. It had been purchased, in part, from one vendor because the sales rep for a competitor was nowhere to be found. At that time, I admit I wasn’t overly diligent in my research process. Since then, I’ve pinpointed some critical questions that need to be answered before purchasing a new instrument. At the end of the process, a shiny new instrument will arrive at your facility. Make sure…

Instrument Quality Control For Reproducible Flow Cytometry Experiments

Instrument Quality Control For Reproducible Flow Cytometry Experiments

By: Tim Bushnell, PhD

The flow cytometer is an integral component of any flow cytometry experiment, and special attention should be paid to ensuring that it is working correctly and consistently. As an end-user, the researcher should be able to sit down at a machine and know that it is performing the same way today as it was yesterday and last week. Equally important is that if any changes in instrument performance have occured, the end-user knows how they have been addressed and corrected, rather than letting them fester and potentially affect the results. Quality control measurements can include a variety of targets, such…

How to Optimize Flow Cytometry Hardware For Rare Event Analysis

How to Optimize Flow Cytometry Hardware For Rare Event Analysis

By: Tim Bushnell, PhD

Preparing for rare event analysis requires an understanding of the power and limitation of the instrument to be used. From how fast to run the fluidics, to how the signal is processed to the number of gates that can be used in the sorting experiment, each factor impacts the outcome of the experiment.

3 Ways The ZE5 Cell Analyzer Accelerates Flow Cytometry Research Opportunities

3 Ways The ZE5 Cell Analyzer Accelerates Flow Cytometry Research Opportunities

By: Tim Bushnell, PhD

Some technological advances are incremental, while others are significant game-changing tools that offer the researcher the ability to significantly improve current assays while allowing for new and novel avenues of research to be performed. With speed, sensitivity, and capacity to spare, the ZE5 fits into the game-changing category. Reduced carryover, increased speed of acquisition, and a large number of parameters all open up new and novel assays while improving the quality and reproducibility of ongoing ones.

Top Technical Training eBooks

Get the Advanced Microscopy eBook

Get the Advanced Microscopy eBook

Heather Brown-Harding, PhD

Learn the best practices and advanced techniques across the diverse fields of microscopy, including instrumentation, experimental setup, image analysis, figure preparation, and more.

Get The Free Modern Flow Cytometry eBook

Get The Free Modern Flow Cytometry eBook

Tim Bushnell, PhD

Learn the best practices of flow cytometry experimentation, data analysis, figure preparation, antibody panel design, instrumentation and more.

Get The Free 4-10 Compensation eBook

Get The Free 4-10 Compensation eBook

Tim Bushnell, PhD

Advanced 4-10 Color Compensation, Learn strategies for designing advanced antibody compensation panels and how to use your compensation matrix to analyze your experimental data.