February 2013

February 27, 2013

Aye Robot...

scottyThe first lab robot was introduced bzymark logoyZymark Corporation in 1982.   The Zymate robot was used to move labware between various instruments in a ‘pie’ shaped work area, simulating the same procedures followed by theoreticallyhigher priced lab researchers and their assistants.  Fast forward 30yrs and the term lab robot can be further applied to several unique devices;

  • Liquid Handlers – XYZ robots that pipette reagents, some can move plates usinbravog gripper hands.  These devices can pipette in a variety of ways from one single channel, 4-12 channels for row or column work or 96 or 384 channels for whole plate transfers.   Some liquid handlers are used as stand alone devices (islands of automation) and can also be found as the central components on larger automated systems which provide extended walkaway time for users.
  • Plate Movers – Essentially bench top robots that are specifically designed to transport KiNEDxmicroplates.  Unlike more flexible industrial robots, these units are pre-tooled for handling microplates and  come with plate gripper hands and plate storage racks.  Plate Movers generally have a simple software interface for teaching plate locations so users don’t have to deal with the vast command sets that come with more flexible robots.
  • Industrial Robots – While designed for a host of applications from electrical/mechanical manufacturing to painting, weldinstaublig and sorting, a number of industrial strength robots can be found at the heart of fully integrated systems.  Generally chosen for their extended reach, these highly sophisticated devices use a small subset of their potential for moving plate between storage devices and instruments at slower speeds than might be found in other applications.

All of these devices are approaching commodity status is the life science markets (drug discovery, genomics, proteomics…etc) which means that their prices are dropping and their ease-of-use is increasing, resulting in faster adoption and deployment.   And while it may be obvious to most,  several of the main reasons for automating lab applications remain constants over time;

  • Increased Throughput – process more samples without human intervention.  This makes lab workers more productive by freeing up time to work on other critical tasks.
  • Repeatability – many lab techs can pipette just as good as any liquid handler, however pipetting is time consuming and its repetitive nature can make it an error-prone operation.   Liquid handling robots largely eliminate human variability and human error, resulting in more reliable data (that’s the whole point of an assay, n’est pas?)
  • Human Safety – Operator exposure to dangerous pathogens, reagents  or radioactive chemistry can be minimized with automation.   (think the garlic smell of DMSO to skin exposure…maybe not life threatening, but certainly a potential social stigma…)
  • Assay Integrity – While human safety is a major concern for many labs, protecting assay integrity  is equally important.  Environmental enclosures around automation helps minimize assay contamination due to human interaction

For more information’

Liquid Handlers;

Plate Movers;

Industrial Robots;

February 25, 2013

Buying A Liquid Handler? click image for article from LabWrench

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February 13, 2013

“To PM or not to PM, that is the question.”

With sincere apologies to The Bard, this is a quandry that is often faced by many lab managers when their facilities group or a vendor informs them that a preventive maintenance procedure is being scheduled.

How do you know when the time is right to actually do such work (spend money)?   Just because the manufacturer recommends that a PM be done every 6 or 12 months, is that the right thing to do?   What if the instrument rarely gets used?

All too often, lab managers or those whose budgets will be tapped for PM services are in the position of ‘erring on the side of caution’ or take a break/fix approach.    Spending unnecessarily is obviously not desirable, however waiting till something breaks can cost dearly.     There has to be a better way.

A number of  common lab instruments have PC based controllers (liquid handlers, readers, integrated systems) and many of those instruments include ‘log files’, which are used by operators to troubleshoot assays or techs to repair instruments.   Savvy lab managers and OEM’s can use these logs to track actual usage as opposed to just following suggested time intervals.   It requires someone to actually look up the log files (if they exist) and be able to interpret the data but unfortunately there are not a lot of alternatives.

The LabSquad (caution: gratuitous self promotion ahead) is looking for off-the-shelf monitoring solutions that can be adapted to lab use.   Other industries commonly use data logging equipment to monitor temperature or humidity but machine usage (especially outside of manufacturing environments) is relatively uncommon.    Additional obstacles present themselves in that not all lab instruments use a PC controller and there are not a lot of inexpensive data loggers to choose from.    Not to be deterred, we are also looking at custom developed solutions that could be added to any lab instrument which would monitor usage and be inexpensive (cost less than US$100).   Just to make it interesting, we would like such devices to wirelessly  communicate with a host PC or tablet such that someone could simply pass by a lab like the fellow who reads your home water meter does by driving by your house to assess the usage of key instruments.

While The LabSquad makes it’s living by performing PM’s and repairs, we do strongly believe that we can help labs better spend their support budgets by investing available support funding more wisely.    Some instruments (the workhorses) might need more frequent attention, while lesser used devices might have their PM’s pushed out further.

As Paloneus says  in Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2;  “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”   Let us know what you think about PM scheduling and how your lab goes about keeping your instruments ‘research ready.’

February 6, 2013

Support My…Asset

For all you self-maintainers out there, some great reference sites;

  1. Lab Wrench – a great Q & A site where folks can post questions and get the community of users, maintainers and current/former field service techs.   Not always the fastest way to get answers, but if your needs are not immediate well worth a try.
  2. LRIG Forum – The place to reach out to those in the know in the area lab automation.  Expect some commercial pitches from vendors from time to time but by and large the people who subscribe to this message board are really interested in helping each other out.  You will get lots of great guidance on how to make instruments interact (integrate), and a fair amount of troubleshooting expertise.
  3. LabX – Not really an interactive forum but you will find a number of companies that may be selling a product similar to yours.   Often these folks wind up servicing/refurbishing used products prior to listing them here and may be able to help you out.  If nothing else, it gives you an option for replacing your troubled instrument if you cannot repair it (use your device as a parts donor).
  4. Google – Seriously, did I really have to include a hot link to Google?   If you needed that, please put down any sharp tools and step away from the lab…   Believe it or not, Google can lead you to a number of academic research sites that store copies of user manuals, many of which include basic troubleshooting or replacement part numbers.

And of course, you can always contact us at info@TheLabSquad.com

February 4, 2013

Do I Really Need An Extended Warranty or Service Contract? (Part 2 of 2)

Although the patent for PCR expired back in 2006 and promised to herald in a new wave of low-cost thermal cyclers, the legal debate over Taq polymerase enzymes continues to make some manufactures nervous about the North American market.   Still, the number of new thermal cyclers to hit the market over the last several years has increased dramatically.    As the prices for these work horse devices drops accordingly,  the justification for service contracts starts to wane.  When opting for a low-cost unit with no local service support, some users may be okay with depot repair or flat-out replacement.    When opting for higher quality units, many labs are going with  periodic maintenance and routine performance rectification (OQ/PQ).    Printed reports or recalibrations by the service tech can be incorporated into your lab’s SOP’s but if you are self maintaining, don’t forget to have the data signed off by more than one person, especially if you are doing forensic or clinical work.

Now, let me put my spin on centrifuge support (wouldn’t be a blog without the occasional pun, now would it?).    Seriously, it doesn’t matter whether you have a floor mount, bench topsorvallRC5C or robot-loaded centrifuge, these devices get a lot of use labloserand it is not uncommon to see units that ten or more years old.   Motors and bearings don’t last forever so routine maintenance is critical.   Additionally, you folks that leave your rotors in the centrifuge and never take them out should have big scarlet letters painted on your lab coats so you can be publicly ridiculed by the service community!  Seriously, many a lab tech has pulled a muscle or two trying to  loosen and remove a rotor that has permanently bonded with the spindle.

Last on the docket for this posting is microplate reader upkeep and maintenance.   Truly, a wide-ranging topic (may have to post separately on this one to do it justice).   The three main readers types (modes) are absorbance, fluorescence and luminescence and while some are limited to one mode, others can do more than one (multimode).   Of course there are also fluorescence polarization (FP), time resolved fluorescence (HTRF), high content imagers and  microfludic analyzers, but for today we will stick with the big three.   All three types work on the basic principle of light measurement to detect samples within the wells of a plate.  Absorbance readers use a light source, filters and a detector to measure what percentage of the source light is transmitted through the sample.    Fluorescence readers  are more sensitive and measure the amount of light emitted from the sample, while Luminescent readers have no light source and instead detect a chemical or biological reaction from the sample.     Depending upon the specific reader, any number of factors can result in bad data but generally most failures are a combination of optical alignments (emitter, detector, filters…etc) or light source age.   Just about every plate manufacturer provides N.I.S.T. traceable “test plates” that can be used to calibrate the device and a number of third-party companies also have more generic standards that can also be used.   It seems patently obvious to say,  but what is the point of conducting an assay if you cannot say with a high degree of certainty that your detection results are accurate?   At a minimum, plate readers should be PM’d once per calendar year and that procedure should include a test report against a known standard.     If your lab only has one reader and it is critical to your research, an annual service contract that includes analytical data would be a wise choice.