Hidden costs of improper pipette use, care, and handling

May 18, 2017

pipette-repairHave you ever wondered how much pipette repairs are costing your lab?  You are not alone.  Pipette repairs are something we are all faced with from time to time, and their costs may be higher than you think. What may surprise you is that some of these costs can be prevented simply by training lab personnel in proper pipette use and handling.

Hidden (and not so hidden) pipette repair costs

Recently I spoke with Douglas Nelson, one of my colleagues, who shared his observations of broken pipettes in the lab and their associated costs. “We dealt with everything from simple fixes such as broken springs to more complex ones like broken ejector bars, bent piston rods, and cracked plastic housing pieces.”  I was very surprised to hear about how often these types of breaks were occurring—about ten times a year, per my colleague.  For some of these repairs Douglas would have to implement were very simple—broken springs and worn O-rings—and could be completed in-house after ordering the required parts. Other issues, such as broken ejector assemblies or plastic housing pieces, required a much more in depth repair and needed to be completed by an outside vendor.

As we further discussed the types of repairs, some very apparent time and monetary costs started to emerge.  Time associated with troubleshooting the root cause of the repairs, waiting for the parts or scheduling the outsource, and conducting the repairs or waiting for the pipette to return from the vendor.  Monetary costs included purchasing the part for in-house repairs, paying for shipping to outsource the pipette, and fees for repairs and labor costs for outsourced repairs.

All of the repairs and the associated costs reported by Douglas are pretty general, and likely occur in most labs.  From my conversation with Douglas, I’ve created a breakdown of the potential costs associated with pipette repairs in Tables 1 and 2. Note that these costs are estimated as parts, labor, and outsource time may vary between vendors and pipette brands.

Table 1. Monetary Costs Associated with Pipette Repairs

Example Repair Parts Approximate Monetary Cost (per part)
O-Ring $1-10
Ejector Pieces $10-30
Springs $5-$40
Piston Rod $20-60
Electronic Components $15-200
Plastic Pieces, Levers, Battery Covers, Etc. $30-400
Pipette Replacement (If repair not possible) $200 to over 1,000

NOTE: Labor costs for outsourced repairs are not included

Table 2. Time Costs Associated with Pipette Repairs

Location of Repair Time (Troubleshooting and Completing/Coordinating Repair)
In House 45-90 minutes
Outsourced Up to 4 weeks*
*Also includes waiting time for pipette to return.

NOTE: Labor costs for outsourced repairs are not included

As you can see from the tables, there are some significant costs, especially if repairs occur ten times per year or more, as happened in my colleague’s lab.

What about other hidden costs?

Frequently having to outsource pipettes can put a great deal of strain on your lab, between preparing and receiving shipments and coordinating production work around the outsourced pipettes.  As an example, multiple groups may have to share pipettes, or you might need an additional set of pipettes on hand to replace the ones you have shipped out for repair.  This means that you could be losing valuable production time as technicians spend their time looking for pipettes to use or waiting for others to be finished using a pipette before they can start their own work.  There could be increased monetary costs, purchasing pipettes and extra calibration supplies to keep a stable inventory.

Going back to my discussion with Douglas, I asked what contributed to the repairs he had observed. He indicated that the age of the pipette (old or new) could be a factor. Aging pipettes have a natural progression of repair needs whereas repairs on new pipettes may still be covered by a warranty. Sometimes, repairs were required because of pipette mishandling.

Mishandling?  I was quite surprised to hear this.  I asked him whether he or his team had directly observed repairs stemming from pipette mishandling, or if this was information he had received from a repair vendor.

“We have seen everything from seating pipette tips with excessive force to pipettes being handled in such a way that led them to falling off a shelf to inconsistent use of pressure on the plunger.”  Once in his lab, a repair vendor suspected that excess ejection force was the factor that led to a broken ejector assembly.  The vendor thought it was possible that the broken ejector assembly was the result of lab personnel not using an appropriate tip type for that pipette, and that the specific tip they used may have required a higher ejection force. Lab personnel might not have even been aware that they were using an inappropriate tip, and had just assumed that excessive ejection force was normal.

I thought this was interesting and wondered if this could be a common issue labs may face.  I got an opportunity to speak about pipette repair and mishandling with Candie Gilman, the Technical Support and Training Specialist for Artel.  She shared an example of mishandling that may be surprising, it certainly was for me. She told me that the volume set on adjustable volume pipettes before they are stored can have a significant impact on the functionality of the pipette.  When pipettes are set at the minimum volume, the spring inside of the pipette chamber becomes compressed.  If continuously stored like this, significant wear on the spring can occur.  In the short term, if a technician takes that pipette first thing in the morning and changes the volume from the highest to the lowest setting and then uses it, the spring may not fully decompress prior to use and you could see some quality issues.

Candie also explained that pipettes need to be stored upright. One reason is that if liquid is inadvertently aspirated into the barrel, storing them upright will allow gravity to help naturally drain the liquid.  If pipettes are stored in a drawer, there is no gravity to help and the liquid can cause corrosion, not to mention potential contamination issues.

The benefits of pipette training for reducing repair costs

It sounds like there are quite a few situations in labs where pipettes are mishandled and technicians may not even realize it.  Not to mention potential repairs due to this mishandling.  What can labs do to help their technicians and lower repair costs?  I posed this question to Douglas.  I asked him if they were able to implement any programs that reduced the need—and associated costs—of frequent pipette repairs.  He mentioned that some departments at his company had developed their own in-house pipette training programs but others did not. He observed that most of the pipette mishandling-related repairs were in the departments that did not have a pipette training program. For example, the departments that implemented pipette training programs mostly had typical wear and tear repairs (O-ring replacement, springs) with few repairs associated with misuse (bent piston rods, and broken ejector assemblies).  He estimated a repair cost savings of over $1,000 between departments.  Because of this savings, he sees a training program as a good laboratory investment.

Conclusion

Pipettes are valuable instruments for almost every life science lab. As we’ve seen in the examples above, ensuring that pipettes are handled properly, receive regular preventive maintenance, and are regularly calibrated are critical for their proper function and can also save your lab money and lost production time.


Additional Resources

There are many resources that discuss pipetting precision and accuracy.  Here are a couple of resources that further examine how users can have impact on pipettes.


About the Author

breeann bryanBreeann Bryan

Breeann Bryan is a dedicated laboratory professional with a LEAN Six Sigma Black Belt. Her background ranges from the bench to operations management. She is proud to share the knowledge she has gained from her experience and empower others to tackle their process improvement challenges. Whether it’s troubleshooting data quality issues or finding out how to maximize efficiency in the lab, she firmly believes that everyone deserves to have the right tools needed for the job.


  • Sandy Cerven

    Breeann, Hello, I am curious as to how this inhouse repair effects the compliance standards. if changing springs then the ISO etc would be void?

  • George Rodrigues

    Hi Sandy, I’m not sure if Breeann is online. I have some experience with ISO 17025 and ISO 8655 (for pipettes). Taking apart a pipette to clean or replace parts is considered to “void” the calibration.

    So if you work in a laboratory where calibration is required (such as pharmaceutical, medical, food testing, etc.) then the pipette should be re-calibrated after replacing springs or seals.

    Does that answer your question. Glad to discuss in more detail. George

  • Breeann Bryan

    Hi Sandy, I apologize for my delayed response. Conducting repairs should not violate a compliance standard, but as George stated would impact the calibration standing and you may need to re-calibrate (depending on your calibration requirement). For some routine repairs like replacing seals, the lab I worked at would tie that into the same due date time frame as the calibrations. So, we would complete the repair and then the calibration. That way we could keep them on the same cycle and complete our calibrations efficiently. Did you have a specific standard you were curious about? If so, please just let George or me know. Thank you for your question!