I am currently shopping for a new laser as a Christmas present from the department to myself. My existing laser was purchased in 1996 and is currently held together by wishes, string and probably fear – thanks to the threats I give it almost daily. For those not trained in physics, lasers held together by string are not good lasers. Lasers ideally need to be held together with expensive laser-certified string.

In the main, we’ve tried to patch it up and keep it alive through all of its near-death breakdowns –  with quite a bit of success. When it’s really broken, we have to ring the technician who is the only person in the world now able to repair the system. If something happens to Bob, the Laser Whisperer, then our laser is in big trouble.

So after some scrounging around (and a little bit of begging) we have scraped the money together to buy ourselves a nice new one. Well, new one at least. So this means two things. Firstly, I have to invite sales people into my lab – which is a quick way to get an inbox full of e-mails with the subject “Just checking…” and “Any progress?” and secondly, it’s a brilliant way to end up utterly confused.

Apple has a great sales model. They have 3 basic computer types with very little customisation. Want a laptop? Yup, here you go, here’s one design, like it or get out. It’s a strangely abusive customer model but their finances show rather well how much customers seem to like a bit of abuse. Sadly however, it’s not a model that works in research as there are so many different requirements. Which is why I have 5 lasers to choose from with a whopping 15 different specifications. Each with their own pros and cons.

And this isn’t a laser specific problem. No matter what big bit of scientific equipment you buy there are a bazillion different options, all of which have a variety of baring on your experiment. Many of which aren’t even all that obvious until you know about them – where upon you suddenly start thinking that it might be THE most important feature, despite never having it before and ever having heard of it.

For the last 19 years we’ve been happy with one laser with one set of specifications and have managed to make it do everything we’ve ever needed. But now we are faced with a plethora of new choices and options that may or may not open our work up to a whole field of science previously un-explored.

Although, as we’ve never had any of those extra options we really don’t know if it’ll do that. Inevitably, at the end of the whole choosing process, we’ll get a new laser with all new fancy bits, only to use the fancy extras and realise that we needed the other laser, slightly different to the specs we now have. Murphy’s Law is alive and well in labs, and especially applied to things you spend £50,000 on.

Purchasing venn diagram

So I implore manufacturers – please, please, please don’t build 300 different varities of the same kit. I’m not going to buy 3 slightly different lasers, spectrophotometers or stages for my range of experiments. Instead, please work harder to make the kit more flexible and save me the inevitable venn diagram headache of trying to find the perfect system. I’d even pay extra for the same system but with a more dynamic range of various settings and features compared to a cheaper narrow range system. iLaser and iLaser Pro are surely all we need, right?


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