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  • Joe Winslow

Pharmaceutical Equipment Vendor Selection

In my experience over many years of specifying and purchasing biopharma manufacturing equipment, I have learned that many equipment vendors are selected based primarily on price. That is a reality that needs to be considered, but there are a number of other things that ought to be well-thought-out.

First though, all prices are not created equal. For instance, you may get two quotes for an autoclave that are widely different at first glance, but digging deeper into the quote may reveal that the less expensive choice doesn’t have all of the same options or perhaps if they do, they are offering lower cost (and quality) components. Many times, the vendor may have standard components that they use, but if you want something different, it will cost you extra. PLC’s are a prime example of that. Many vendors in the EU will use Siemens, but if you want anything else, there is a significant upcharge. I am not saying that the upcharge is not warranted because there is considerable work involved on their part to make changes to their standard design. I am just saying that you need to be aware of these costs.

Other ways that vendors lower costs on their equipment is by reducing or eliminating the documentation or support packages that are included. If you are not clear in your RFP about the documentation you require, it may not be included in the price. You should ask for examples of that documentation so you know the level of quality you can expect.

Other things to look for are the length of warranty periods, vendor on-site time during installation, shipping costs (or lack thereof), training costs, and other less than obvious items in the quote.

Another thing to normalize among the various vendors is reputation and reliability. Chances are that during the bidding process you will be dealing with a sales person and, after the sale is made, you will then be dealing with a totally different group of people. You will need to call references to find out how well the company supports the equipment after it is operational. Is it easy to get parts? What is the typical lead time? Are there enough service techs to support your part of the country? How much down time can you expect? Is it easy to get an engineer on the phone to answer questions when you need phone support? Try to find references NOT given to you by the vendor as they will give you a better picture of the average service provided. You can do this by utilizing your network, asking around at vendor shows, or posing questions on industry chat boards. If you do have to use the vendor provided references, ask them for a dozen or more and then you can randomly select from those. If you only get 2 or 3, proceed with caution, because they have probably been hand selected by the salesperson as folks who had projects that went well.

Another consideration is maintainability. How familiar are your company’s maintenance folks with the components on the equipment? If they are used to working on Rockwell - Allen Bradley automation components (for instance) and the new Autoclave has Siemens automation, you may want to rethink that decision. If you are anticipating using the vendor’s maintenance techs, you need to ensure that their response time is adequate for your needs.

Parts availability is also important. Some vendors use parts that are readily available at your local Grainger outlet, but others use proprietary parts or components that are made overseas. That is not a deal breaker, but may mean you need to keep more spares on hand.

Are you planning to do Factory Acceptance Testing (FAT) and Site Acceptance Testing (SAT)? If so, how many days are allowed for in the quote? Do they guarantee that they will be ready (and what does “ready” mean) when your personnel arrive at their factory? If additional time is needed, is that on their dime or yours? Is travel for their technicians included or extra? All important questions.

Lead time is almost always a consideration. I have seen equipment selected based on lead time alone, but if a vendor knows that, they may squeeze their schedule to a point where it is unrealistic. Consider putting in penalties if they do not deliver the equipment when they say they will deliver it.

These are just some of the multitude of things you want to consider. It is easy to compare what the vendor says they are providing with your User Requirements Specification (URS), but you may find that all of the vendors you select say they can provide everything you are asking for. What is not so clear are the less concrete items described above.

Comparing vendors is generally done with a document called a “bid tab” (bid tabulation) which lists the requirements down the left side and the vendors across the top. You then go through each quote painstakingly and fill in the grid as to whether that vendor meets each specific requirement. (Tip: create the template and send it out with your RFP, requiring the vendor to fill it out for themselves). Often though, bid tabs fall short in looking at the more subjective items like parts availability or service tech response time. You should do a bid tab, but that should not be your only decision making tool.

Take the time to do this homework upfront, and you may save your project time and money and save your company money and headaches in the future.

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