Managing a lab - planning for future expansion and equipment purchases

In my previous post I talked all about the exciting new kit we have purchased as part of an AHRC CapCo grant. The whole process has been quite a steep learning curve for me, and I am incredibly grateful to the research, finance and procurement teams at Newcastle who all helped to make this happen. I thought it might be useful to share some hints and tips here for anyone considering applying for a capital grant, or with any responsibility for building lab facilities.

The first point to make, is planning. It was only possible to complete the project in the AHRC's short timeframe (2020 call opened 2 September, closed 13 October) because we already had a good idea of what kit we wanted and had detailed future plans for lab development. This has largely related to REF planning, but also is an item on our lab agenda that we update fairly frequently. It is really helpful to have some ballpark figures to hand to plan how much you could reasonably include in a grant. A lot of the time you have to talk to a sales rep to get a ££ ballpark figure, which can seem a bit tedious when you just want some numbers to work with, but it's actually really useful to make contact with your regional sales reps and establish a good relationship with them (keep a record of who they are, and their emails).

Second point is Estates. This is the largest variable in my experience, and can spiral quite quickly. At the very least you will need the benching and electrical requirements for  new kit, and the computers to run them. Do you have space for new kit? If not, be aware that getting a new room on a university campus can take a long time. We were able to identify a room very quickly as we had already been involved in a refurbishment process 2 years earlier, so I knew what options were available. But it still took a while to get permission to transfer 'ownership' of the room from from School to another. I had to provide a business case, with costings, to the School executive board, and that then had to be approved by the Faculty Estates Planning Manager. This could easily be the sticking point in any project. Have these conversations at least one year before applying for a grant, make sure you know what space is available, and that the university would be willing in principle for you to have the space. 

Know what state the room is in, and what estates work needs to be done for it to be useable. Get plans of the space you will be using, check room dimensions, location and quantity of power sockets. Will you need access to a gas supply, ducted ventilation, and are these possible? Our lab is in a listed building and getting ducted fume hoods  is impossible without planning permission, and that was just not possible for us. How accessible is the room? Is there a lift nearby where large items can be delivered? How sensitive is the equipment you will be buying? Some equipment such as SEM is really sensitive and often needs to be installed on a ground floor. Does the equipment plug in or does it need hard wiring? Keep a spreadsheet with all this info. Add a large contingency to your estates budget. One hilarious example is our microCT scanner. Careful consideration of equipment dimensions showed it would fit in the room, however we later realised that the crate it is delivered in is massive and had to factor in widening the door frame so it would fit! Sometimes it may be possible to de-crate and move kit into the room, but in this case the kit is 450kg and the corridor leading to the lab not wide enough to do this sort of manoeuvring. Widening the door frame meant moving an electrical socket out of the can see how this can start adding up!

Third point, Procurement. I have been involved in lots of projects where we have sourced and purchased lab equipment, but generally this has been <£25k at a time. As soon as you start acquiring items with a greater value than this, the process get much more complicated and time consuming, and it is extremely important that you factor the correct procurement process into planning (this is a legal requirement, not just a university rule). The chart below is a useful summary. For very high value items greater than £164k, the tendering process can take quite a long time. This timeframe can be reduced if you are part of a purchasing framework, but do you know what frameworks your university is part of? Make a 'kit wishlist' in different price brackets and know what the process is for buying it.

Which supplier? You may know what company you want to buy from, but it is not always that simple. In our case, going through the procurement process we managed to get some hefty reductions on some items. If you don't even know where to start, your procurement team will definitely be able to advise on contracted suppliers. Are the suppliers already registered on the university procurement system? If not, get them all registered, that will save you the hassle of having to do it later when you have a project deadline.

Ex-demo kit can be a lot cheaper and can usually be delivered quicker - but don't use the ex-demo quote price in your application. I made this mistake and by the time the grant was awarded, one of the ex-demo items had been sold. I was incredibly lucky that the overall savings on other items made up the difference, but this could have been quite the headache. Likewise, always use the list price, not the educational discount price. This gives you a bit of wiggle room if prices fluctuate, or if there are unexpected additional costs (ahem, estates).

VAT - it is vital that you keep track of whether your quotes include VAT or not (I always ask for this to be included on the quote now so I don't have to calculate it myself later). 20% on £150k is £30k, meaning your actual cost is £180k. 

Finally, enlist help - delegate some of the prep work to other lab members. It is unlikely you are going to be an expert on all the kit your department might want, and it may be that there is another staff member who can talk about all the technical stuff with the sales rep. If you are going to do it yourself, make sure you run the kit list by the rest of the team and make sure it covers all the applications you want it to. Our FTIR for example was quite a hard decision to make, as there are lots of different configurations available depending on what type of materials you are working with.