10 Questions Your Analytical Testing Lab Should Be Asking You

By John H. Knowles, President of MicroVision Labs When you contact an analytical microscopy lab like MicroVision Labs, or some other type of testing lab, for SEM/EDS, PLM, FTIR, XRF or any other testing need  there are a number of questions you can expect to be asked beyond what is on your business card.  Whether it’s your pet project or something that was dumped on your plate by a co-worker, boss or client you’ll be able to save time and help assure the project gets done right the first time by making sure you can answer these questions.  Conversely if your lab isn’t asking these questions, and instead is only asking how you plan to pay, that is probably a pretty good indication of what they are focused on.

    1. What is the problem? Whether it is the failure of a product, high levels of dust or the need to validate a new supplier, there is always a problem.  A good analytical testing lab knows it can’t solve that problem without first knowing what it is.  If the lab understands your problem they will be able to design an appropriate analytical method for your project and properly interpret the results.  If your problem is outside of their expertise or capabilities then they should be able to give you referrals to other labs that are better suited to handle your project or at least tell you what test equipment has be best change of helping solve your problem.  But either way, being able to concisely outline and describe your problem, including having any relevant photos, diagrams or data sheets ready, will be very to your lab.
      Example:  An example of a typical client problem would be a manufacturer that is periodically getting unwanted black spots on the white ceramic parts they produce causing a high rejection rate.

    2. What is your ultimate goal? Your ultimate goal is often different than your analytical goal (which we will cover in the next question).  It is the thing that once it happens, makes your problem go away.  It is important for your lab ask about your ultimate goal because it will provide context and help them design an analytical plan that will get you closer to achieving your ultimate goal.  By asking about your ultimate goal, your lab is getting the information they will need to better set your expectations and avoid future disappointment.  In most cases your lab will not be able to achieve your ultimate goal, but if they develop the proper analytical method then you will receive the information that will empower you to meet your ultimate goal.

    3. What is your analytical goal?  Your analytical goal is what your lab can do for you.  It is the data and the results that they can actually deliver to you.  It may include specific image magnifications that you will need or minimum detection limits for example.  Whatever your analytical goals are it is important that your lab knows what they are and lets you know if they are able to meet them.  This will ensure that your expectations are in line with what they can deliver.  It is also important that your analytical goal will help you achieve your ultimate goal.  If the analytical goal is to take images of black particles on the ceramic parts and size them, then that will not be helpful in the ultimate goal of making them go away.
      Example:  Continuing with the black spots example, your lab will not be able to make the black spots go away which is your ultimate goal but they may be able to identify them which should help you find the source.  For example if the black spots turn out to be rubber dust then a quick search of the area the samples were collected would identify any rubber sources around (e.g. forklift tires, pump belts, etc.).  If needed a new analytical goal could be created, comparing the rubber sources in the area with the rubber dust detected on the parts.

    4. What other background info can you give us on your sample(s)? Knowing the history of a sample can save a lab a lot of time and you a lot of money.  A little of your inside information can go a long way in choosing the right sample preparation and analysis.  Let them know if this a repeat problem, if any other analyses have been run on your samples and what those results were, how they were handled, etc.  Knowing that your sample was collected off of fiberglass insulation, for example, will save the analyst time and help them make sense of all the glass fibers they are detecting on your sample.

      Time is Money

    5. When do you need results by? Again, this is another expectation issue and it is a great time for the lab to state their standard turnaround time as well as their rush fee scale.  Beware of labs that take your samples without a word about when they will be run and then hold the data hostage until you pay the rush fee they never told you about.  There is no reason this information can’t be shared ahead of time.

      Metal Oxide samples for SEM/EDS analysis

    6. How much sample or how many samples do you have? The answer to this question lets your lab know how feasible the project is for the turnaround time you requested.  In some cases it will also be relevant for determining what kind of detection limits or concentrations they can obtain.  In many cases it is better for the lab to have extra sample in case something goes wrong during the sample preparation or analysis.

      Artwork sample from 1600’s for non-destructive XRF Analysis

    7. Do you need the sample returned/can it be destroyed during the analysis? Hopefully your lab isn’t needlessly destroying samples for the fun of it, but sometimes a destructive analysis is what the job calls for.  In some cases it is possible for your lab to do the nondestructive analyses first so that you can review those results and decide in it necessary to conduct the destructive analyses.  It is important for any analytical testing lab to know if they are working on a sample that they can throw away when the analysis is done or if is a one of a kind prototype.   If it is important to return the sample they should follow up by asking you where you want the sample shipped back to and by what currier service.

    8. Do you want us to sign a confidentiality agreement? I have to admit this is one we don’t always ask.  That is because we are an ISO 17025 accredited testing laboratory which requires us to have a company policy that treats all client data as confidential.  Also we are solely a service lab and are not part of a bigger corporation that manufactures or develops/patents products of its own, so we don’t have any internal conflicts to have to deal with.  That said we are happy to sign confidentiality agreements with our clients as I think any good testing lab would be.

      Nitric Acid Warning Label

    9. Is your sample, or any part of it, hazardous? When a lab asks you this question it tells you that they are concerned about the safety of their analysts as well as the proper disposal of samples that could damage the environment.  Even if you lab does not ask you this question you should notify them of any hazardous material in your sample and provide the appropriate MSDS.

      Chain of Custody’s typically have space for billing info.

    10. Who are we doing the work for, who gets the bill and who can we report the results to? This may seem obvious but many times consultants will be contacting a lab to analyze their client’s samples and ask the lab to bill their client.  Most labs will have a strict policy, like we do, that data can only be released to the company that is paying the bill unless they give us written authorization to share the data with a third party.   

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