Article | December 19, 2016

Back To Basics: Choosing The Right Pipette (And Service Support)

By Omar Richards, instrumentation supervisor, BD Biosciences

Biotech and life science companies deal with complex methods and principles every day as a matter of course, but at the base of virtually everything they do is something surprisingly uncomplicated – a pipette. Whether it’s single or multichannel, electronic or manual, a pipette is a basic, albeit vital instrument for so many aspects of R&D, QA and manufacturing. As such, if anything goes wrong with a pipette, a ripple effect can radiate problems throughout development and production processes. This article discusses how attention to detail in choice of pipettes, maintenance, servicing and calibration can make a world of difference.

Pipettes are ubiquitous. They are the workhorse of the laboratory, relied upon by scientists worldwide, who depend on accurate, precise pipetting to ensure reliable, reproducible results. Yet all too often these vital pieces of equipment are taken for granted, with end users giving little thought to the maintenance and calibration procedures that are so essential to ensure peak pipetting performance. Choosing the correct pipettes and service support is crucial.

A Standardized Approach

Many large companies employ instrumentation teams to take responsibility for providing design, set-up and procurement advice for all equipment installed and operated on site, including pipettes. To ensure accurate results, it is important to carefully consider which pipettes are best suited to the laboratory – manual or electronic, air or positive displacement, small or large volume – and whether or not to choose just one preferred manufacturer. It is also important to think about when and how pipettes should be serviced and calibrated, and by whom.

Because of the number of different processes we use, we currently have about 2,500 pipettes of varying types and sizes. With such a large number of pipettes to maintain, we opted for a majority site-wide standardization. Rather than allowing scientists to purchase any pipette from any supplier, we prefer to use high quality pipettes and tips from just one manufacturer, which simplifies the situation considerably from both a procurement and maintenance point of view. However, we have to still allow a degree of flexibility in pipette choice because, on rare occasions, researchers might need a specialist pipette that our preferred supplier cannot provide.

Ensuring Optimal Pipetting Performance

The use of accurate, precise pipettes and high quality tips is just the first piece of the puzzle. Optimal pipetting performance is equally dependent on implementation of regular maintenance and calibration procedures. Maintenance and calibration intervals will vary depending on the laboratory environment. For instance, we typically calibrate pipettes from our R&D laboratories on an annual basis, compared to three to six months for those in use in the QC arena. Monitoring the frequency and severity of pipette failures will establish whether the chosen calibration intervals are sufficient, need shortening or can be extended.

When it comes to choosing a pipette maintenance and calibration service contract, there are a number of important considerations. The requirements can vary significantly, depending on whether or not the laboratory is accredited and which regulatory demands it must satisfy. Is there an ‘off-the-shelf’ service contract available that meets your laboratory’s needs, or do you require a degree of customization? Is on-site servicing appropriate, or do pipettes need to be calibrated in a controlled environment on the manufacturer’s premises? If they are calibrated off-site, is it better to use a service provider such as Rainin that can provide replacements for the duration, or is it better to invest in additional pipettes to cover for those away for servicing? If it is necessary to track pipettes in the laboratory, then the latter solution is probably more appropriate.

Before entering into an agreement, service offerings should always be studied in detail and discussed with the supplier. This allows any uncertainties to be clarified and provides the opportunity to incorporate any additional requirements into the contract, tailoring it to individual specifications. Service contracts should also be reviewed from time to time to check that they are still appropriate, as laboratory workflows and regulatory demands are likely to change over time. Failing to do this may result in a situation where the supplier continues to provide exactly the service it said it would, but not necessarily the service the laboratory currently needs. Calibrated pipettes are supplied with a certificate detailing the volume ranges and tolerances used. It is crucial that these too are checked to ensure that the correct specifications are used for calibration; any errors discovered at a later date will result in costly, time-consuming investigations to establish the knock-on effects and the extent of the damage.

Taking The Long-Term View

Cost is always a key consideration for laboratories, whether it is for procurement of equipment or services. Laboratories need to look carefully at the various service options available, remembering that cost is just one aspect of the contract and that there will be key differences between the cheapest offerings and those that are more expensive. There is no doubt that the simple pipette touches every aspect of laboratory work, and an error at this point impacts on all subsequent processes. In the long term, it can prove more cost effective to choose a company with specialist knowledge in the field, even if the initial outlay is higher, as a deeper understanding of the subject, backed by expert customer service, will provide additional security and peace of mind. In the end, it is up each laboratory to think carefully about its specific needs, ensuring that it selects the most appropriate service contract available or, if necessary, embarks on a customized agreement.