Take the test equipment test

Friday June 24, 2005
Written by Rice Williams
Nightmares–we have all had them. As students, we may have dreamt of arriving at an exam without having cracked a single book all year. As adults in the high-tech manufacturing world, we may dream of waiting helplessly for a test equipment part to arrive while our production line piles up, or an approaching army of customers babbling complaining non-stop about poor product quality, because we didn't calibrate our test equipment correctly.
Unfortunately, unpleasant scenarios occur every day in manufacturing plants. It doesn't help when you face mounting challenges with extremely tight budgets, while your employer still expects you to push quality products out the door. What's a plant engineer to do?

Read on to find out how you can cut your new equipment costs by capitalizing on your previous investment in test-and-measurement equipment.

1. Take advantage of trade-up/trade-in programs
Trade-up programs let you upgrade to a newer model while allowing you to keep your budget in check. Some OEMs offer trade-up programs that let you trade previous generation products from any vendor for a credit toward the latest technology. Trade-in programs allow you to trade any category of instrument and receive a credit toward both products and services. You might trade in a spectrum analyzer that no longer fits your requirements, and purchase a network analyzer along with an extended warranty. You get instant savings from the purchase credit and the flexibility to choose exactly what you need.

2. Buy used–but be careful
Buying used instruments can be nerve-racking. If you're going to purchase used, it's important to know the source. You may pay a bit more for used equipment from an OEM, but you risk a lot less than if you buy from a broker. When buying from an unknown source, you risk cosmetic-only refurbishing, questionable calibration, software licencses that may not be transferable, hardware or software that's been modified by previous owners and now requires servicing, and missing accessories and manuals. Consider not just the price of a used instrument, but the total cost of ownership over the time you will own it. Service and support costs can eat up any initial savings from buying "as-is" equipment, for example. Buying replacement parts, training for your technicians, and upgrades or warranties for older test equipment are costly and time-consuming. The last thing you need is for a used product to cost you weeks of engineering time or extensive upgrades before it's ready.

3. Consider the calibration quality
Customer satisfaction affects long-term sales, which means you don't want your customers complaining of product failures. You want to find failures in the final testing phase at your manufacturing facility, not at your customer's site. Don't rely solely on International Standards Organization (ISO) certification. ISO 9000:2001 doesn't guarantee calibration quality; it only ensures that the vendor that performed the calibration followed its own documented ISO processes. Look for ISO 17025 accreditation, the gold standard for quality systems. To pass an ISO 17025 audit, a vendor must appoint an independent third party to take specific measurements on the used equipment, and document measurement errors. As the buyer, you should insist on a printout of the calibration and test results. Also, beware of suppliers that calibrate a unit and then leave it sitting on the warehouse shelf. Make sure you ask if the unit has undergone calibration in the past 60 days or, better yet, immediately before shipment.

4. Ensure the instruments have gone through extensive refurbishment
Since you can't afford downtime in manufacturing, your used instrument must be reliable. OEM-certified used instruments that have gone through an extensive refurbishment process are fully remanufactured. Remanufacturing goes beyond just prettying up a product; it involves technicians reseating internal boards and cables as needed, and–based on their knowledge of design issues–replacing parts and assemblies that could cause problems in the future. The OEM also has the knowledge to perform all necessary safety upgrades, as well as correctly install the latest firmware and software revisions. If performed by experienced, factory-certified technicians who are intimately familiar with diagnosis and repair, your used instruments will be far less prone to failure.

5. Get a decent warranty
Only buy used instruments that come with a solid warranty and return policy. Ideally, you want the same kind of warranty, return policy and technical support that you would get if you purchase new equipment. Warranties sometimes start at only 30 days, but it pays to have a full-year warranty, plus a full year of questions answered via phone, Web, or e-mail. Watch out for return policies that only give you only 5 or 10 days to evaluate an instrument. With today's lean manufacturing organizations, your engineers or technicians may not be able to get around to checking out the instrument in time. Instead, look for at least a 30 day return policy, 60 days is even better.

Rice Williams is marketing manager at Agilent Technologies' Remarketing Solutions division.

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