April 2013

April 29, 2013

Well Equipped…Part II

WD40 Duct Tape Flow Chart“One only needs two tools in life WD-40 to make things go, and duct tape to make them stop.” –  G. Weilacher

While true in many facets of instrument support, there is one other tool which lab support techs will find invaluable – the digital tachometer.    A more precise name would be a strobe tachometer, which neatly describes the basic theory of operation…a strobe light which is used to monitor the rotational speed of the rotor.

The LW Scientific Hand-Held tachometer can be found at a variety of web stores for under $200.   

tach

This device is easy to use and comes with reflective tape targets that you can place on the rotor arm.  Simply point the tach at the rotor in the general area of the target and hold it steady…after a few seconds you will see a reading that while changing, stays within the commanded speed.   This device can monitor speeds from 20-50,000 RPM which makes it ideal for most lab centrifuges and has a range of 50-400mm.  It’s accurate to +/- 20 RPM, so obviously you would want to be a bit skeptical at the low end range…

Interestingly, most separation assays call for acceleration of the sample not the rotational speed.  From a repair or assay integrity perspective, checking RPM’s will suffice as a general method to determine that the instrument is performing as specified by the manufacturer.    For those who are more curious, there is a great Wiki with more info.

Some centrifuge brands have sight glass windows that allow the digital tach to observe rotor speed while the unit is running…others do not.  Now comes the inevitable caution…caution! (notice I even used an exclamation point).    Seriously, most centrifuges Beck_L8are capable of causing great physical harm due to their extremely high speeds.   Safety interlocks that prevent internal access while spinning are there for a reason.   While a trained tech can defeat such locks, it is not advisable for a novice.   If you any doubts click this image to learn how dangerous high-speed centrifuges can be…

Manufacturer or third-party FSE’s re-calibrate the speed of a centrifuge by adjusting one or more potentiometers on the control board.  Initial speed setting is typically done without a rotor in the unit.

One last caution kids…speed kills.   Let’s be careful out there.

April 29, 2013

Well Equipped…Part 1

Not every instrument failure requires a call to the manufacturer (OEM)  or an independent service organization (ISO).   Some simple and common failures can be rectified by just about anyone with some common sense and common tools.      Can’t help much with the common sense, but the tool part is a lot more straight forward.

***WARNING *** if you are not comfortable working with electricity please don’t mess around and call for help from you own facilities support folkdmms or and ISO.    If you kill yourself, don’t write me a nasty-gram from the afterlife.

The handheld DMM -  Digital Multimeter (aka the voltmeter).   The name voltmeter is used pretty loosely by a lot of tech’s and only describes one function of this device.  Very capable DMM’s can be found at the local hardware store for under US$50.     For a good tutorial click here.

Voltage - Most DMM’s can measure a wide range of AC or DC voltage.   One of the most common problems when you fire up an instrument and get nothing is no AC power.   Most US labs will operator on 110 or 200VAC.    A zero volt reading means you probably have popped a circuit breaker.  If the AC outlet you are plugged into had a ground fault button, try pressing the reset button and try again.   If you get voltage at the outlet, but no action on the instrument, you may have blown a fuse.  Not comfortable checking voltage?  Try plugging the instrument into a known good working outlet instead.   More knowledgeable techs can test DC voltages for printed circuit boards (PCB’s) inside the instrument.  Most instrument power supplies will convert AC power into lower voltage DC power and distribute it throughout the instruments.    Many PCB’s have incoming power marked at a connector coming from the main power supply.

Resistance -  Resistance is a measure of a devices ability to restrict the flow of electrons in a circuit.   If you crack open an instrument and see a charred component, it is likely a burned out resistor.   If you can still see the value of that resistor  (some have the value printed, others may use a series of colored bands), you can use the DMresistorM to verify if it is blown (open circuit, infinite resistance).   While you may be able to unsolder and replace this component, there is no guarantee that it will not blow again, as something else may have failed that caused too much current to flow thru it or too much voltage across it, causing it to cook.  If you come across a cooked resistor (or any other component), better to have someone replace the entire module.   Almost no FSE’s will spend time doing component level failure analysis as it is time consuming and ultimately more expensive.

Continuity – Some DMM’s allow you test for continuity (the closure of a circuit) that will result in a beeping signal.   No beep, no continuity.   A quick crossing of the probe leads will tell you what sound you are listening for.   This is what you will use to check you fuses or diode.    A diode allows current to flow in one direction only.   Diodes can be checked by reversing the leads across the component.  It should beep with the leads in one positreceptacleion, not beep in the other.  Some instruments have a main fuse as part of the receptacle that the AC cord plugs into.  MAKE SURE YOU UNPLUG THE INSTRUMENT BEFORE YOU DO THIS!!!   You can pop this open and check if the fuse is good or not.

Current -  Not really something I would advise a notice to attempt.   While voltage is measured across a load, current is measured in series with a load.   So, in order to check current, you need to break the circuit and use the DMM to measure current flowing through the meter as part of the circuit.   Lots of potential to hurt yourself here…leave to a professional.

Temperature – One of the features of many digital mulitmeters versus their older analog counterparts is the inclusion of a thermometer probe.   This can be very hand for diagnosing random failures that are related to run away heating problems -  a common example might be an intermittent cooling fan failure.   Try taking a cover off near the fan, tape the probe somwhere close and note the temperature during normal operation with fan running (and cover back on).   Then open it up, and unplug the fan (replace the cover) and monitor the temperature increase.  If you do this, be vigilant and don’t leave the instrument unattended.   You are looking not only for a temperature spike but also abhorrent instrument behavior…so you want to be able to shut it down ASAP.electicution

Okay, so there you have it.  Some basic things you can do with a DMM.  Just remember, when it comes to anything involving electricity, you should always consult with your facilities management.   Never perform electrical testing alone and never in the presence of liquids (especially flammables).   When in doubt…leave to someone in the know.

April 22, 2013

Crowd Sourcing Instrument Support?

Makers_3d_2Just finished Chris Anderson’s (editor Wired Magazine) new book, “Makers The New Industrial Revolution.”   In this book, Anderson does a great job of highlighting how the internet, 3D printing and crowd sourcing are enabling small batch manufacturing and prototyping.  He ultimately predicts a resurgence in US-based manufacturing and a diminished need for venture capital so often required to create companies and bring products to market.

Anyone who followed the recent investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing manhunt saw first-hand the power of the crowd.   Tens of thousands of web-connected citizens poured over photos and videos that would have taken federal and local police agencies weeks or months.  Within hours of releasing low quality photos, both suspects were identified and flushed out of the darkness.

Similarly, an article from The Scientist recently posited the idea of crowd sourcing drug discovery.  The thinking here is that waiting for new chemical entities to fail in Phase II studies is as unfair to patients as it is to the researchers who toil in redundant efforts.   The brute force approach of high throughput screening did little to bring new drugs to market meetupfaster.    Last year, a Harvard Med School student and budding entrepreneur named Shantanu Gaur started  a group at Meetup.com in an attempt to create a drug discovery collective.    His ethos is built around the mantra of  replacing “publish or perish” with “share or despair.”   For an industry that strives on peer review, overcoming IP issues that enable crowd thinking could provide the massively parallel efforts that will streamline understanding and treatment of diseases .

None of this is new to lab instrument support.   For a number of years now, users have been able to interact with each other as well as vendors and independent support organizations via forums such as LRIG and LabWrench.    Users  share similar experiences as hints and tips come from current or past employees of instrument manufacturers.   Some manufacturers have even created user forums to help support their products.    Still, a fair amount of knowledge about instruments is proprietary and closely protected by manufacturers.   This is understandable as many of these companies rely upon post-sales support revenue as an important component of their balance sheets.   The one thing missing from breaking this logjam is a more formal unification of the user community.  The power of the crowd lies within the sheer number of end-users for lab instruments.    Figure out a way for all users to speak with one voice and the leverage of the crowd will move the way instruments are supported.

But, how to do that is the subject of one of my next postings…

April 17, 2013

Thank You First Responders

responders-homage

A victims relief fund has been created

click this logo to donate.

OneFundFlag-sm

It’s a great way to say ‘Thank-You.’

Tagged under: Marathon, One Fund

April 12, 2013

Who’s Minding The Store?

It has been said that the French love Jerry Lewis.  Books have even been written about it (well, at least one book).store   I would not presume to question French culture…however even Jerry’s old partner Dean Martin sang “Everbody loves somebody sometime…”

Still, when French scientists need to automate ‘cell culture‘ and other time or temperature sensitive assays, they (and researchers from many nations) require automated storage devices (…all that for a ‘store’ reference?)

One of the more common instruments that enable extended walkaway time (the ability to automate multiple plate runs of any given assay) is the automated incubator.  Actually, the term incubator is a bit on a misnomer as these “plate hotels” can have a variety of temperature and/or humidity ranges that enable their use in a wide variety of assays.  To further complicate that definition, said plate hotels can also be used to store plate lids, tip boxes and tube racks.

Ambient – Perhaps the most common of all plate storage devices, ambient hotels can be as simple the removable storage racks found on plate mover robots such as theCaliper/PE Twistetwister iir II or the PAA KiNEDx or even dedicated plate stackers like the Thermo FisherRapidStak.   Many plate reader companies (Molecular DevicesBioTekBMG Labtech…etc) also offer dedicated ambient stacker options.   Additionally, Liconic,  , Agilent,Hi-Res Bio and Thermo Fisher(Kendro/Hereaus) also offer stacker hotels with built-in elevators/plate presenters that are also used in their temp/humidity controlled devices.   Hi-Res Bio also offers the PicoServe for robot arm access.  For the most part, users only need to consider if their assays require random access of individual plates or stacked storage (one plate on top on another).  Stacking plate racks follow what is known as a LIFO or Last In, First Out paradigm.  This is great for empty plates that will be fed into a system for simple tasks such as plate replication or reformatting.    Some folks even use this as a means of eliminating lids, as the plate above acts as the lid for the plate below – top plate is a blank).  Random access racks (individual plate holders) are great for assays where you need to treat each plate uniquely such as hit picking or ELISA.  Plate racks come in portrait or landscape orientation and some devices allow for bar code verification or delidding options.

Heated/Cooling – Options start to become more limited when you need environmental control.   Small batch options include self-contained single plate devices froIncubator_Family-09-2011_02_056bb39b14InHeco, which can be stacked on top of each other as well as recirculating fluid locaThermal-Plate-Stacker-Part-STKRtors fromMéCour.  MéCour also offers a recirculating fluid jacket for Twister II racks.  For more than a handful of plates, there are three well established providers;

  • Liconic – For well over a decade, this little juggernaut from Lichtenstein has created a formidable offering of products, all designed for liquid handler or robot manipulator access.   They also offer ambient hotels that utilize many of the core components used in their environmental models.  The range of products covers just about any application you can come up with!  Just a word of caution, depending upon the age of the instrument, you may find that there are design variations that can make post sales support challenging.
  • Thermo Fisher -Thermo acquired Kendro in 2005 and carried on the Cytomat/Heraeus (and Sorvall) product lines.   Originally, the Heraeus products were co-developed with Liconic and shared many common components and needs, but more recepicoservent products are of a completely new design.
  • Hi-Res Biosolutions – a relative newcomer to storage, but a very impressive line of products ranging from the 8 position Plate Chill cooled racks to high-capacity plate or tube storage.

End users, OEM’s  and system integrators have a wide variety of choices when it comes to extending assay walk-away time.   The French may indeed love Jerry Lewis but researchers love having time to perform higher value tasks due to the reliability of plate storage devices.

April 9, 2013

Is it safe?

It’s been over 35 years since the movie Marathon Man came out and I still have a fear of dentists.marathon-man   That imagery has nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of this blog, but the title reference was too good to pass up…

Everybody who works in a research lab no doubt has had to go through a mandatory lab safety course or certification.   Companies provide such training both to ensure the safety of their employees and processes as well as to avoid future litigation should an accident occur.    What is not always as clear is how to ensure the safety of visitors, or in the case of instrument support, Beyond providing lab coats and safety goggles, there are a couple of basic precautions that can be taken to ensure the well being of visitors and support techs;

1) Contact Person – all visitors should have the phone and email info for an employee who has been through a company approved safety training program.  Visitors should be required to seek out this person for any concerns they have prior to conducting their worChemical Spill Cleanupk, or in the event of an emergency.   Also, make sure you have the techs emergency contact (work and personal) info in the event that person requires medical attention.

2) Disclosure – Make sure you inform the tech of any biological or chemical hazards regarding the instruments.   Point out instrument decontamination certificates and give direction on how to dispose of wastes (chem wipes, q-tips, wear items, gloves, lab coats).  Also let them know your protocols for dealing with reagent spills or exposure.

3) Evacuation Instructions – Let the tech know how to exit the building inevacuation the event of an emergency.   In addition to typical lab accidents, in today’s world that could also include fire alarms, terrorist attacks, workplace violence).  Point out any per-determined ‘rally point’ once out of the building.   Also, let them know how to re-enter the building or sign out if they do not return so they can be accounted for.

4) Facilities Support – Never let a visiting tech hard wire equipment to your facilities electrical junction boxes.  If such a need arises, have your own knowledgeable facility personnel on hand to disconnect power and supervise all work.   Same goes for plumbing high pressure air lines or water lines.

5) Basic Safety Training – make sure the tech has received basic lab safety training from their employer.  Ask in advance for them to bring a certificate of such training, specific to the visiting tech.

With a little bit of extra consideration, it is  easy to ensure the safety of lab visitors.   And, it your service tech looks even remotely like Sir Laurence Oliver in the photo above, don’t be surprised if he or she incessantly asks,  “Is is safe yet?”

April 5, 2013

A Robot By Any Other Name…

A number of lab systems incorporate robot arms to manipulate consumables (plates, lids, tip boxes, troughs).   Robots, insofar as lab automation is concerned, can be broken down into three categories:

Liquid Handling Robots- Ten years ago or more, if someone in thTecan EVOe lab was talking about a robot, chances are they meant a liquid handler.   Not surprising, since most liquid handler are essentially XYZ robots.  However, unlike their more generic cousins which are used in industrial manufacturing applications, these robots have evolved into application-specific workstations.  That is to say, they come pre-tooled with everything that is needed to perform plate preparation applications.  Even their software is specific to these applications.

Industrial Robots- When moving consumables  off the liquid handler deck, to peripheral instruments (readers, washers, storage…etc) a number of lab systecaliper-staccatoms are built around industrial robots from established companies such as Staubli Robotics,Mitsubishi Electric and Epson Robots.  These robust and increasingly affordable robots were once the exclusive purview of industrial assembly lines or semiconductor manufacturing.   Smaller sizes and lower costs have resulted in widespread adoption by integrators such as Hi-Res BioPAA andCaliper Life Sciences (PE).  Out of the box, these generic devices are not much more than building blocks – requiring tooling (gripper hands/fingers, storage devices, sensors and a good deal of programming and teaching to make them manipulate lab consumables.    However, once tooled up and programmed they are reliable workhorses that require little, if any maintenance.

Plate Mover Robots – Zymark (now Caliper/PE) was one of the first companies to come out with robots dedicated to plate movement.   The Twister plate loader was essentially a miniature version of an industrial cylindrical robot – meaning it’s work envelope was twister-7900cylinder shaped instead of rectangular, like XYZ robots.  What made this robot unique is that it came with microplate gripper and fingers, as well as removable plate storage racks.   My good friends Rick Bunch and Brian Paras did a masterful job of marketing this product (over 3000 were sold) which became the de-facto standard for loading instruments for nearly a decade.   Soon, improved varients emerged such as the Hudson PlateCrane EX, Zymark (PE) Twister II, Thermo CataLyst Express and more recently Peak Robotics(now PAA) KiNEDx/ProNEDx/BiNEDx and Precise Automation PreciseFlex all capable of tending to several instruments (Twister was ideally dedicated to one instrument).  Additionally, unlike industrial robots which generally come with sophisticated controllers with multi-tasking operating systems and proprietary programming languages containing huge command sets with an endless syntax permutations,  plate mover robots come with build in controllers (no separate box or umbilical cords) and a concise command set that is optimized around moving microplates.   Finally, the platemover robots have found dual use as instrument loaders as well as becoming the hub of many integrated systems just like their industrial counterparts noted above.

Last words:  Both liquid handling and plate moving robots are well within the means of many labs both in terms of price and functionality as well as ease-of-use.   Industrialbroken_robotrobots are best left to those with deeper engineering resources or professional integration firms.  Since this is a blog about support…the same holds true in that many labs or third parties are capable of supporting liquid handler and plate movers however, not many  (including integrators) are truly capable of services industrial robots.  That is a task best left to the robot manufacturer.

April 3, 2013

Have I Got A Tip For You…

the-graduate

“I want to say one word to you. Just one word.  Are you listening ? Plastics.” - The Graduate, 1967

Automated liquid handlers are very quickly (if not already there) becoming commodity products.   While every liquid handling manufacturer claims certain features or twists on how they do things, ultimately they all do pretty much the same thing…suck and spit (keep it clean people, we’re running a blog here…)  One sure sign of ‘commoditization’ is when third parties begin to offer accessories that compliment or compete with a particular product and in the case of liquid handlers,  that most commonly means disposable pipette tips.

Wondering if there any performance or reliability issues associated with the use of third party tips? tips To be sure, original equipment manufacturers (OEM’s) test and warranty their products using tips that they manufacture.   It is reasonable then for them to discourage the use of third-party tips insofar as performance guarantees are concerned.   Additionally, most of the OEM’s have made significant investments in the creation and maintenance of plastic injection molds that they or their supplier uses to stamp out their tips… so there is of course an understandable financial desire for them to want customers to purchase only OEM tips.

Insofar as periodic maintenance is concerned, end users should note that if they are performing routing CV checks (either gravimetrically or via a dye test), the tester needs to consider that differences in accuracy or precision may be affected by badly formed tips but that holds true regardless of who makes the tip.

However, it is not reasonable for an OEM to claim that the use of non-OEM tips “might” void the equipment’s warranty.  That’s a bit of a scare tactic that upon further reflection speaks more directly to lost consumable revenue than the fear of tip induced hardware failure.   I mean, if a tip gets stuck on a mandrel instead of getting shucked, I guess yeah, you could experience a crash that could damage the liquid handler.  Crashes do happen but such occurrences are rare once a tip is in production as most of the third-party providers I have dealt with have very stringent QC programs.    If you want to err on the side of caution, consider using OEM tips for new purchases and evaluate third-party tips once the warranty expires (usually 1yr).

Looking for alternative tip providers;

Corning/Axygen -   Agilent/V11, Beckman Coulter, BioTek, Caliper/PE, Dynamic Devices, Hamilton, Molecular Devices, Tecan, Qiagen

Labcon - Beckman Coulter

Phenix Research – Agilent/V11, Beckman Coulter,  Caliper/PE,  Eppendorf, Molecular Devices, Tecan, Qiagen

Thermo Fisher/Molecular BioProducts – Agilent/V11, Beckman Coulter, BioTek, Caliper/PE,  Molecular Devices, Tecan, Qiagen