How do you save money on pipet tips without jeopardizing your test results?
Would you be willing to jeopardize your results to save money by buying pipet tips that are inaccurate or contaminated? The answer is easy because the cost of introducing error far outweighs the money saved. So what is the "safe" choice? Here are the primary ways labs make the best choice:
- Purchase the pipet tips sold by the pipettor manufacturer. The assumption here is that the person who makes the pipettors is the one who would most carefully make tips that work "best" with their brand of pipettor. As you will see below, most pipettor manufacturers buy tips made by other companies.
- Purchase pipet tips made by a manufacturer with a recognized brand you trust. One of the more popular and trusted brands would be Corning Axygen or Thermo MBP tips for example. The idea here is that a trusted brand got that way because a trusted name must therefore produce a high quality product.
- Purchase the brand of product your contract distributor is promoting. Typically there are pricing incentives for you to do so. Examples are VWRbrand and Fisherbrand private label tips.
- Evaluate tips and vendors and determine the best value after conducting comparative testing. I have yet to encounter a lab that made their decision in this manner. In most cases, one of the previous 3 reasons trumps the decision to do a proper evaluation. However nearly everyone would agree that given unlimited time and resources, this is the preferred method.
As the proprietor of PipetTipFinder.com, I am frequently asked for my opinion on what is the best value in pipet tips? Labcon North America has always been high on my list because they have always had very competitive pricing. The question you and I share is: "Can you get a great price on a high quality pipet tip?" Intuitively, the answer is no. Like you, I was curious. I wanted to find out for myself (and for our clients) if it could be true.
What makes a high quality pipet tip?
On November 24, 2014, I traveled to Petaluma, California and spent a day at Labcon North America's manufacturing plant courtesy of Labcon's President, Jim Happ. Labcon was founded in 1982 by the owner of Helena Laboratories, Tipton Golias. Helena and Labcon are privately held companies.
The world-wide usage of pipet tips is estimated at 30 million per day. One third of this worldwide demand is manufactured in the bay area. The Thermo MBP manufacturing plant is right across the street from Labcon. This is no coincidence as it was founded by former Labcon employees.
There are many brands of pipet tips on the market. PipetTipFinder currently lists 54 but there are many more. After attending the PittCon show in March 2014, I met with dozens of Chinese companies who trying to sell tips in the U.S. market. And the price range on pipet tips spans 3 orders of magnitude! So does spending more on pipet tips get you a better quality tip? To answer this question, you have to define what IS a quality pipet tip?
How are they made?
By injection molding. Figure one shows how the injection molding process works:
Figure 1: Diagram of an injection molding machine
Figure 2: Commercial injection molding machine.
An injection molding machine is useless without a mold. And molds don't come cheap. Most people today outsource their molds to Mexico or China. Even with this, a typical mold will average $80,000 or more. Since the quality of the pipet tips depends several factors:
- The design of the mold. This determines whether they will fit properly on your pipettor.
- The type and quality of the plastic being injected into the mold.
- The condition of the mold. Molds wear over time and the quality of the tips you get on a brand new mold will not be the same as a mold which has been in use for a long time.
- What happens to the tips AFTER the tips leave the molding machine.
Figure 3 – Multi-Cavity injection mold.
What happens if just one of the 16 molds becomes damaged and produces faulty tips? Labcon uses a unique mold/machine design that allows one or more ports to be shut down. The machine can continue to operate at a slower output but with no bad tips in a lot. This is a far more expensive process and requires much more expensive molds but it ensures that no defective tips end up in the final product.
Labcon is one of the very few companies who make their own molds. They do so with a state-of-the-art wire EDM machine. (For those of you interested in this process, check out the video below:
Read more about this technology at the Wikipedia page for Electrical discharge machining. ) This machine gives Labcon the capability of making a new mold (or replacing one portion of a multi-cavity mold) quickly and economically.
All of this investment means that Labcon, unlike its competitors, can provide you with a consistently high quality product because they aren't encumbered by the need to stretch out the life span of their molds as their competitors who outsource. Further, since they have already made the investment, there is no major capital outlay to be made when a new mold is required.
Polypropylene is the traditional primary material used to manufacture not only pipet tips, but a host of other lab products. Labcon buys virigin, non-recycled resigns for all of its manufacturing. Many off-shore makers of cheap pipet tips mix recycled with virgin plastics to cut costs. Of course, in the laboratory, any types of contaminants – especially metals – must be eliminated. Recycled polypropylene can easily introduce contaminants which can be different from lot-to-lot.
This is not to say that Labcon doesn't recycle! In fact, all of their left-over plastics are ground up and made into the boxes which the pipet tips are packed in eliminating virtually any waste.
What makes Labcon unique is that they are constantly innovating by testing new materials. For example, they are one of pioneers of the "flex top" pipet tip. This technology makes the fit of a pipet airtight without the need to jam the tip on the pipettor–especially for multi-channel pipettors.
Further examples of their innovation are in the area of ultra-low binding tips. They have created numerous types of custom made feedstock for molding which offer some of the lowest binding tips in the industry.
There are few innovators and many copiers in this industry. Of particular interest to me was how many big name companies in the industry source their tips from Labcon! I can't reveal the names, but trust me on this: Many of the best names in this business are selling you tips made by Labcon under their own brand. They have identified Labcon as THE source for high quality and innovation.
After the molding.
What happens to a tip after it comes out of the injection molding machine is critical. Nearly every molding machine is coupled to one or more Cartesian or XYZ robots that are designed built and programmed in house at Labcon.
Figure 4 – Example of a Cartesian robot.
Clearly robotics reduces labor costs and increase throughput. But it may not be apparent but this technology also produces a far better product. Why? Because humans (a huge source for hair, dirt and DNA) don't come in contact with your tips!
To contrast this, consider how Thermo MBP packages their tips:
Tips are taken from the injection molding machine and placed in drums.
Drums are loaded on semi-trailers and trucked to their plant in Mexico.
Hundreds of low-cost employees take the tips from the drums and put them in racks or bags.
Racks are put into cases, placed back on semi-trailers and trucked back to the U.S. for sale.
Thermo MBP is considered by many as one of the premier manufacturers. And outsourcing tip packaging to low cost countries is the most typical way it is done today. While this may be less costly, it is a huge potential source of contamination.
Non-filtered Labcon tips are completely robotically packaged and never come into contact with humans.
However, filtered tips present a different problem. Labcon has looked at many different schemes for getting these filters into the tips and have determined that having a human do this is the best way using some proprietary tooling. I witnessed this and noted that she was gloved and gowned but never came in contact with the tips.
I had the pleasure to meet Scott Weitze who Labcon's Scientist. Scott has a state-of-the-art lab where each lot is tested and certified to be free of all the contaminants listed below:
Figure 5 – Labcon Certificate of Compliance
How are these tests performed?
Figure 6 – Labcon statement of testing protocols.
Do all tip makers go to these lengths to ensure that the products you are getting are tested the way Labcon does? Every lot they produce? No. Only Labcon performs in-house, industry-leading biological testing on each and every product lot rather than quarterly or yearly testing. Every Labcon product is backed by lab test results and certificates that can be downloaded directly by the end user.
Testing the dimensions and geometry of the tip.
The testing and certifications mentioned above are just for contaminants. How about the shape of the tip? Is it round? Is it straight or bowed? Is it the right diameter from top to bottom?
My biggest surprise came when Labcon said that they tested every lot for dimensions and geometry both before and after autoclaving! We've all seen that little sign "autoclavable" on tips but who would imagine that the tip maker would actually test and certify each lot they produce to ensure that this claim is valid!?
How do you test the inside of a pipet tip for its wall thickness? Labcon showed me three very expensive pieces of equipment that they use to test tips. One was an instrument made by Olympus that measured, very accurately the distance between a small stainless steel ball dropped into the tip and the outside of the tip. When rotated, a graph of the wall thickness was produced. Flat lines are good!
In addition, they use a very specially adapted microscope to visualize and measure any bow in the tips.
The result? You can be absolutely certain that when you get a Labcon tip, you can pipet knowing that you won't have to worry about whether your tips will affect your results.
Will the Labcon tip fit on my pipettor?
At PipetTipFinder.com, I use the information manufacturers provide to determine whether a pipet tip fits a particular pipettor. When I was introduced to the lady who was responsible for this at Labcon, I couldn't wait to find out whether testing was actually done on all the different brands they state their tips will fit in their brochure. (Labcon's tip fit listing is the largest, most complete in the industry.)
Labcon has actually purchased and collected every single pipettor that they list in their catalog! This is a huge investment and it is a BIG collection! But do they test them all on every lot?
The answer is no. After using a micrometer to measure the barrel and de-tipping dimensions, they have found that a representative set of approximately 20 different pipettors can be used to test as they represent all of the different geometries present on their entire collection. And yes, they test every lot for fit on these pipettors using gravimetric methods! The results are all logged and available on request.
How is it that only Labcon and MBP have tips that fits the Rainin LTS pipettor?
This was a question that I was very interested in asking Mr. Happ. His reply was a short story I did not expect:
"Labcon found a way to manufacture tips for the Rainin LTS several years ago without violating the Rainin patent. It worked so well that Labcon was sued by Rainin for patent infringement. We went to court and won the case - we did not infringe on their patent.
Rainin's first reaction was to come to us and ask us to make tips for them. (Rainin's tip making facility is also in the Bay area.) We negotiated but never struck a deal.
Next, Rainin reacted by carving a small grove in their barrel so competitors tips would leak air. They offered a free retrofit to all owners to keep us out of the market. A small tweak was made to our molds and our tips worked perfectly again. Since that time, Rainin has just tried to convince their users that nothing else will work, but we are winning in the marketplace. We expect them to try another retrofit at some point in the future to keep the market to themselves. We will, of course, redesign our tip as necessary."
What about MBP, I asked?
"MBP buys tips from Rainin on an OEM basis. That's why they are so expensive." Jim told me.
So it is no accident that Labcon is, for all practical purposes, the only other option Rainin LTS owners have. The quality is better than Rainin and the price is far better. The only challenge is to get Rainin users to trust that someone other than Rainin can make a tip that works on their LTS pipettors!
What do plastic manufacturers like Labcon do to reduce their impact on the environment?
Labon as a company, and Jim Happ in particular are committed to doing their part to reduce their environment. Jim is leading the industry charge to develop an industry standard method for measuring the entire carbon footprint of a business, not just its products, taking into account things like the miles the employees must travel to work.
Labcon has received over $1MM in incentives from the local power company to install solar panels on their entire roof surface. The total cost was over $3MM but they now produce 1/3 of their total energy needs and nearly all of their energy need during the daylight hours. (They manufacture 24/7.)
From making all of their tip boxes out of recycled plastic to innovative tip loading systems with virtually no non-biodegradeable waste, Labcon is one of the most environmentally conscious companies in the industry.
Does Labcon make anything other than tips?
Yes. Labcon makes microcentrifuge tubes, an assortment of PP test tubes of varying sizes, PCR plates and a host of custom products on an OEM basis in the industry. In fact, Labcon won the supplier of the year award at the Agilent supplier meeting in Singapore this year. And Labcon has taken home the supplier of the year trophy from VWR International (voted on by the sales force) for well over a decade. (Note: Labcon makes VWR's private label tips.)
How can Labcon be price competitive with all of the QC testing they do?
Labcon is in a very strong competitive position. They own their facility and all of the millions of dollars invested in equipment. They have a very stable and experienced workforce. They have a large, stable OEM business. They inventory very little, shipping virtually everything they make almost as soon as it is packaged.
So Labcon has a great cost position.
The VWR relationship has left Labcon with little name recognition in the U.S. and Labcon has no control over pricing. To make matters worse, VWR brought Neptune Biotix on as an exclusive product line which competes with their own private label product. The result? Labcon is looking for ways to expand its market share in the U.S. while maintaining the longstanding VWR relationship.
The LPS-Labcon partnership.
LPS and PipetTipFinder are proud to be one of Labcon's resellers. We have a price position that allows us to compete with anyone. We have a supplier that is one of the best in the industry.
If you use pipet tips, or other plasticware - regardless of how big you supplier is - you should contact LPS for pricing. Our clients know that our prices aren't just pennies under the competition. In many cases, our customers can save over $100 PER CASE by sourcing Labcon products through LPS.
Here is just one example:
Item on LPS
Item on VWR
LPS/PipetTipFinder price per tip: $85.51 / 30,000 = .0028
VWR price per tip: $230.16 / 10,000 = .0230 This price is nearly 10X higher for exactly the same item!
Labcon North America is perhaps the highest quality pipet tip made, however Labcon North America is perhaps the least known brand in North America.
The choice is no longer between quality or price; with Labcon it is quality at a great value.
For Rainin LTS owners, Labcon is the only viable alternative on the market. And it's a better product!
Do you require specialty tips or packaging? (Low binding, sterile, wide bore, etc.?) Labcon has them all.
If you thought U.S. manufacturing couldn't compete against Mexico or China, the good news is that you were wrong! Labcon is proof!
LPS web store and the PipetTipFinder.com web site should be YOUR source for savings and quality – Labcon North America.