Maximizing Benefits from Test Laboratory Services
In today’s economy, it is important to control or maintain costs and maximize benefits derived from all purchased services, including analytical testing services. This is true whether a company uses an in-house lab or a commercial testing lab for refractories/ceramics testing. It may seem strange that a commercial test laboratory would promulgate analytical service cost controls, but the goal is often to provide the best analytical services in the most economical fashion. This can be readily accomplished if manufacturers follow a few guidelines before submitting samples for analysis.
These guidelines can aid companies in determining test requirements, identifying an appropriate test lab and developing a mutually beneficial relationship with the lab. A caveat: it may be counterproductive to overall operations to minimize the scope of the analytical slate or decrease frequency of testing to cut costs. Omitted tests, supplementary test requests, repeated tests, and delayed reports can all adversely impact the total analytical cost and schedule.
Knowing Your Material
As a sample submitter, it is in your best interest to understand and identify what analyses are needed to satisfy your real requirements for the material in question. Specifically, what are you trying to determine about the sample materials? For example, if you do not need data relating to specific components, don’t request it.
Can you provide complete sample identification, pertinent sample information, material safety data sheets (MSDSs), and protective handling requirements if necessary? It is unsettling in a lab to process a sample identified only as “refractory material” and then find out later that additional protective handling procedures were recommended. When receiving this information prior to or on sample submission, the lab may be able to suggest alternative test procedures to maximize pertinent data and eliminate irrelevant tests, thus decreasing the report turnaround time (TAT) and analytical costs.
Does your (or your customer’s) quality management system require specific laboratory accreditations such as ISO, NADCAP, FDA or military specifications? Laboratory accreditations are time consuming and costly to obtain and maintain, thereby adding to a laboratory’s operating costs. Do not specify more accreditations than you actually need.
What is your realistic schedule for utilizing the data? Can the lab meet it? What is their standard TAT for materials similar to your samples? Requesting expedited testing impacts the lab’s schedule and throughput and incurs rush processing fees. A practical turnaround time goal for refractories/ceramics is five business days after sample receipt, with expediting fees of 25-100% of the standard analysis price for shorter reporting periods. Price lists with rush fees of up to 200% of the normal charge for one-day TAT on specified tests are not unusual. These fees can seriously impact your analytical services budget and should be used sparingly.
After manipulating lab schedules and personnel to meet a rush analysis reporting deadline, it is somewhat disconcerting to receive a call several weeks later from the submitter who is starting to review the data and has questions or additional test requirements. This frequently requires a second handling and processing fee at most labs, again eating into the project’s budget and schedule.
Are the lab’s standard reports adequate for your needs, or do you require special formatting or report content? Some laboratory information systems can be readily reformatted, while others may require reprogramming at an additional cost and schedule delay. Again, make sure you request (and receive) what you need to monitor your product or resolve your problem, but minimize specialized service requests whenever possible to control the costs and production schedule.
Laboratory Identification and Selection
A good starting point when you need to expand an analytical slate for new materials, suppliers, products or production problems is your current testing lab. If they do not provide the specific service desired, they may be able to identify an alternate lab with the necessary capability and a cooperative agreement already in place for subcontracted analyses. Trade journals, advertisements and the Internet are all useful resources for sourcing a lab with the requisite expertise. Industry colleagues are also a good source for lab identification and, in particular, performance references.
When selecting a new lab, checking the scope of its accreditations first can shorten the search if it does not have the certifications you need. Does the lab perform all analyses in house, or does it subcontract certain tests? In the second case, is the subcontractor’s accreditation acceptable? Subcontractor TAT is frequently a problem, particularly for rarely requested test procedures. Does the lab have an accredited quality management (QM) system? Will it provide you with access to its QM system? May your QM manager perform an in-house audit? These are important questions, so work with your QM manager early in the search process.
What level of services do you need? Is it primarily a standardized analysis of routine samples on a somewhat regular basis, or a series of one-of-a-kind samples requiring more individualized treatment and scheduling? Another important question is whether or not the lab analyzes unique samples or just routine samples. Verify TAT and prices for unique samples or analyses.
Overall lab capabilities, instrumentation and test methods of interest should be determined to eliminate dealing with multiple labs for a complete analysis or if future analytical needs change. These discussions are an opportune time to present specific aspects of your materials, requirements and identify any potential problems, such as the availability of special or non-routine handling, reporting requirements, and associated added costs.
Commercial laboratories generally have a standard price list for each test they perform based on the submission of a single sample, specific test requirements, sample material, TAT and standard reporting processes. Most labs also offer volume discounts for a single batch of samples submitted at one time for the same or very similar analyses. Other discounts may be based on a series of similar samples submitted in a periodic manner (e.g., 10 samples a month for a number of months).
Conditions for obtaining discounts should be clearly defined to prevent future billing/invoicing difficulties. If multiple sample discounts are not offered, just ask; it won’t cost you anything and it may save you some money. Expedited sample analyses can range from 25-200% of the standard analysis price, so be prudent, verify standard TAT and be sure of what you are requesting. It is also important to define purchase orders, work orders, payment methods, payment terms and any unusual aspects of the lab’s or your in-house processes.
All-inclusive prices ensure that there are no additional costs for sample preparation, retention, sample returns and subcontracted test handling fees. Does your lab provide this information? Special handling or preparation fees may also be assessed for samples exhibiting unusual physical or compositional characteristics. Samples considered hazardous materials usually carry a premium price to cover return shipping or disposal costs, which can be exorbitant.
Standard sample retention periods must be identified. Some labs retain standard samples for 90 days before discarding. At some labs, samples may be retained on a limited basis (if required by a company’s customer specifications) for up to a year at no cost. Many laboratories retain samples for 30-90 days at no charge and then charge a small fee for the next 9-12 months.
Developing a Partnership
Developing a partnering relationship with your laboratory can help maximize benefits derived from your analytical services program. This can be a formal contractual agreement or informal working relationship. Many positive relationships develop informally, since contractual agreements tend to be more restrictive, less flexible and take longer to put in place.
In either case, both parties should clearly enumerate what they expect to receive and what they intend to contribute to the arrangement. Both parties can benefit from such an arrangement through improved communication, scheduling, and problem resolution—even if lab services are only used sporadically.
Such agreements tend to improve two-way communication, including reciprocal on-site facility visits that lead to a better understanding of each other’s processes, scheduling, production problems and ultimately to improved analytical slates and data. Specialized analytical programs for new products or non-routine samples will be easier and possibly less costly to implement. Should you experience a production line problem, a partnering arrangement will be helpful in quickly setting up an analytical program to provide meaningful data to assist in identifying and correcting the real problem. Both parties should identify primary and secondary contacts to insure adequate communication coverage, especially for off-hour contacts for immediate communications in case of production line or lab system outages.