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.

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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.

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