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Asking more from after-sales service

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At ICALEO 2019, Dr Ruth Sahler, COO at Perfect Lens, highlighted how the current customer service offerings of laser suppliers leave a lot to be desired

Throughout my career I have found that buying, maintaining and in general owning a laser has proven to be a very time-consuming, expensive and frustrating experience.

Lasers in general still have a fairly long lead time, a considerably short warranty phase, not much resell or trade-in value, and require many more service calls than you’d expect. This is quite a shock when first acquiring a laser for your company. Ideally, you want the laser right away, to have it last anywhere between five to ten years, and also to have the option to upgrade it to a different system if your priorities or requirements change. Most importantly, you want a stable system that runs without interruptions.

You soon realise that this is not the case, however, and before too long you’ll find yourself arranging for your laser to be serviced. Here begins what turns out to be a very lengthy and taxing process.

Getting in touch with your laser supplier is not difficult, however the amount of people involved with arranging and carrying out the required maintenance can often be overwhelming and time consuming. Arranging a site visit can be more or less complicated depending on the location you are in and also the product you have.

At the point when you believe you have succeeded in scheduling for an engineer to come and fix your laser, you again quickly find out that this is not the case. After waiting weeks for the engineer to arrive, you learn that they are only there to verify that your laser is broken, and that, on most occasions, to actually get it serviced you will have to ship the system all the way back to their headquarters.

Trouble in transit

Transporting a laser back to its manufacturer – in addition to taking weeks depending on the distance – is a very risky process. Not only can it result in your system being damaged even further on the way to its service, but it can also lead to the laser being damaged after it has just been repaired – on the return journey. This means you have to start the process all over again. Apart from the risk of further damaging a laser during transport, you also have the risk of the shipping company losing it. You would assume that the box is big enough not to lose it, but unfortunately that can also happen. In my case they ultimately did find it after a month, but this is now one of the reasons I no longer feel excited about shipping a laser, and why I try to avoid it if I can.

When you operate a laser, there are a number of included sensors dedicated to making sure the surrounding environment is within the strict specifications set by the laser supplier. Therefore, when it then comes to transporting your laser, it’s almost impossible to meet these strict environmental specifications during transit, as for example the temperature and the humidity of the system can vary greatly throughout the journey. It is impossible to verify that the system was shipped to specifications, and even if it arrives with all shock sensors active, it does not seem to make much difference.

Once your laser finally makes it to the repair site, as a valued customer you expect frequent updates informing you how everything is going, and when you can expect your system to be returned (after all, you are relying on it to run your business). Again, the reality turns out to be quite different. I have often found myself repeatedly chasing laser suppliers, trying to find out whether I’ll be getting my laser back on time.

Simplicity in servicing

Scheduling a service for a laser should be quick, easy, and automated.

Rather than having to have a number of lengthy phone calls, during which you are required to speak to a number of different employees, you should instead just be able to have a single phone call, or preferably the option to go online to initiate the remote call or site visit. Here you should then be able to see which servicing dates are available, and then pick one that suits your company best. In addition, you should also have the option to select the type of service that you need, and then be able to comment on your requirements – for example whether you already have a clean room, or instead require a portable clean room tent to be brought to your site.

Perfect Lens uses its femtosecond lasers to create a hydrophilicity change inside implanted intraocular lens materials. (Image: Perfect Lens)

You might also find that you prefer working with certain service engineers over others, and therefore having the ability to choose which engineer comes to your site would also be a very desirable feature. If you have the same or a small group of service engineers working on your project, that always makes it a lot easier and minimises misunderstandings.

Lastly, once you’ve booked the engineer, they should actually come to your site ready to fix your laser, rather than just to confirm to you that your laser is not operating to specifications. A repair would require bringing a number of parts and sometimes a clean room tent, and would save us having to ship our lasers far away and risk damaging them even further.

Customer? Or beta tester?

Good customer service is key in all types of industry.

Customer feedback and experiences are usually used to improve the next generation of a product. However, when it comes to femtosecond lasers in particular, it often feels like the product was pushed out too early, and that the improvements being made are not generally improving the system, but are instead allowing the system to be used to its originally defined specification list. It therefore feels like the customer is acting as a beta tester for the laser company.

In addition, I’ve found that that if you aren’t buying a lot of lasers from a company, you often won’t be regarded as a high enough priority. This isn’t just the case for small companies, it turns out. I’ve frequently had the same discussion with colleagues who work for much larger companies, however because their projects don’t always require a large number of lasers, the number of units they purchase isn’t big enough to be prioritised for maintenance in the eyes of their laser supplier.

For every other type of component supplier I’ve worked with, good customer service has always been a priority, and we’ll get frequent feedback and help with our products after purchasing them. But when it comes to buying a laser, we always get the impression of: ‘you bought it, now it’s yours’, which can often leave us feeling stuck with our new system.

Communicating with your supplier

If you are trying to find a new laser supplier, you always get told ‘we can do anything and everything you need, as fast and as cheaply as possible’, but then when you work with them you find out that it’s actually not that easy and there are in fact a number of complications. There seems to be lots of different expectations from the customer side and the supplier side. It would be more helpful as a potential customer to just be given the real facts and figures, as well as some honest feedback about what to expect from them as a supplier.

A diagram of an open breadboard setup that Perfect Lens typically uses to test laser parameters or new applications. (Image: Perfect Lens)

How many lasers with the same specification have you actually sold? How many of those are still operational? How many service calls have been done in average within the first year? How many after the first year? What happens if the system is operated within the specifications but at the upper range? Has the company tested the laser thoroughly for the specifications you are planning to operate the laser in? What happens if the system is falling short of your expectations? Can you return it? What are the costs? And what happens if you have an operational system after a few years, but you would like to upgrade? Can you trade in an existing laser? These are the sorts of questions you should be asking a supplier before buying a laser.

For the medical device manufacturing industry, in which I work, changes to any component have to be evaluated and accessed for safety and also repeatability. A working and approved system (including the laser) is therefore not changed if not needed – the risks and the regulatory work would in most cases be too large. Consequently, you often end up sticking with the same laser company. This can be an issue however, as while you want to stay with a laser supplier and develop a good relationship with them, you want to be doing this because of their good customer service, rather than because you feel like you have to. Problems with products do happen, but often the way a company handles the problem is what determines the experience.

In most other industries, when you spend as much as you would on a laser, customer service is much better. Service is fast, updates are frequent and you’ll often get a loaner or a demo unit during the repair time.

Why can’t this be the same for the laser industry?

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