Reuse, recycle and thrive: used-equipment businesses keep growing
Aug 5, 2011
Maintaining an ultrahigh-vacuum system is costly, but money can be saved by using reconditioned components. Hamish Johnston talks to three companies that have thrived by reconditioning and selling used equipment
You need new vacuum kit but your equipment grant is not what it used to be – maybe you could save precious research money by buying a reconditioned unit? Or perhaps you have just upgraded your vacuum system and you have a cupboard full of perfectly good equipment that needs to be cleared out. What should you do – throw it away, pass it on to a colleague, or perhaps try to sell it? Fortunately, there are a number of companies ranging from large corporations to one- or two-person operations that buy and sell used equipment – reconditioning it along the way.
Enter "ion gauge" into eBay and RBD Instruments in Bend, Oregon is selling just what you need. Or perhaps you are in need of a hemispherical energy analyser and a colleague points you towards PSP Vacuum Technology in Macclesfield, UK, which specializes in reconditioning electron-spectroscopy equipment. Indeed, even large manufacturers such as Germany's Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum see used equipment as an important market that has enjoyed steady growth.
Clear strategic value
Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum's specialist in second-hand products Michaela Eberz explains: "In the mid-1990s, we started to offer used products – at first we took tentative steps into this market in order to gain experience and avoid any detrimental influences on quality issues and our normal business." Today, says Eberz, the firm has developed an international expertise in the used-equipment market, which it supports via its worldwide service network. Indeed, Eberz says that "sales of used products have a clear strategic value" to the service side of Oerlikon's vacuum business.
At the other end of the business scale, with four employees, PSP Vacuum Technology got into the used-equipment market via its business of reconditioning equipment for customers. According to co-founder Nick Palmer, the firm's main business is manufacturing and selling new electron guns and energy analysers, and usually does reconditioning work on ultrahigh-vacuum (UHV) instruments such as electron spectrometers, X-ray sources, electron sources and ultraviolet sources. It also sometimes refurbishes general vacuum components such as feedthroughs and bellows assemblies, manipulators, electronic controllers and other UHV-related equipment that resides outside of the vacuum chamber.
According to Palmer, the firm often finds itself working on used equipment that has changed hands free of charge between academic researchers. He says it is often the case that universities are not interested in getting into the business of selling used equipment and instead the kit is passed around within the research community. For example, the firm is now refurbishing a hemispherical analyser built in the 1970s that was given to a researcher in Ireland by a colleague in the UK.
While such arrangements ensure that less hi-tech equipment ends up on the scrap heap, Palmer laments the fact that UK government funding bodies do not do more to promote the reuse and redistribution of vacuum equipment. "There is plenty of good stuff out there but a lot of it gets thrown away; many young researchers would like to get their hands on it," he says. However, Palmer says that it is not easy for researchers in the UK to get funding approved for used equipment.
On the other side of the Atlantic, RBD Instruments takes a more proactive approach to used-equipment sales – a market that it has been in for more than 20 years, according to co-founder Randy Dellwo. "We specialize in surface-analysis instrumentation such as Auger, XPS and SIMS systems, but also deal with general vacuum systems as well," he explains. The firm sources its equipment from both commercial and academic users. Many of RBD's customers are start-up companies and academic users that buy refurbished kit when they cannot afford the much higher price of a new system. "The fact that we completely refurbish the systems and include a warranty is important," he explains.
The obvious benefit in buying used equipment is price but Dellwo does not think that his customers are losing out on functionality. "Older systems can provide typically 80% of the functionality of a new system, at about 10% of the cost of new," he claims. Dellwo also points out that like cars, older systems are easier to service than newer equipment because the older electronics are not based on surface-mount ICs.
Eberz agrees that price is an important issue. "The recent market crisis has led to increased demand for used products for all technical ranges and price levels," she comments. Indeed, Eberz points out that used components have proven very popular in emerging markets in Eastern Europe and Asia. However, she adds that business in Western Europe, especially Germany, is growing.
According to Eberz, there are several other reasons why a customer will request a reconditioned product. When high demand or long purchasing times mean that a customer cannot receive a new product immediately, it may be quicker to ship a reconditioned unit to them. In other cases, a user may need to replace a component that the original supplier no longer makes.
Reconditioned equipment may also be shipped by Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum to a customer to replace a unit that is either in the process of being repaired or is being returned under warranty. Used products even form the basis of an emergency pool of equipment, which can be made available to customers with critical applications.
Once a used item has been acquired, it is reconditioned for sale. Dellwo points out that with components that have been used as part of a well-maintained UHV system – which by their nature are extremely clean – there is often little cleaning to be done.
However, if contamination must be removed, Palmer says PSP uses cleaning processes similar to those used when preparing new equipment for UHV use. Typically, this involves a thorough degreasing in an ultrasonic tank, followed by assembly in a clean room. "Certain items require specific surface coating after cleaning," he says. For example, X-ray anodes are coated with aluminium and magnesium. The surfaces of elements for electrostatic hemispherical analysers are coated in a graphite-based material, which ensures that the electric field is not affected by surface oxides.
So where does this used equipment come from? Although Oerlikon Leybold Vacuum sometimes buys used equipment when contacted by a seller, Eberz explains that most equipment is received by the firm in part exchange for new equipment or after a leasing contract has run out. Other equipment may have been on loan to customers or be demonstration models.
As for the future of the used-equipment market, Eberz believes that "it is an increasing business in general". Dellwo echoes this sentiment and suggests that the business is by its nature recession-proof: "The used-systems business tends to thrive in both good and bad economies."
About the author
Hamish Johnston is editor of physicsworld.com