June 12, 2018 by Kevin Keras

Expensive...Compared To What?

How many times have you looked at a quote for a service visit and rolled your eyes at travel charges?  "Yikes, that's as much as the service labor itself!" Often, you will see "Zone Charges" which reflect the manufacturers placement of service engineers in key geographic locations. If an engineer is in your 'zone', your costs are lower. Need an engineer to travel a distance, perhaps by air, and the costs will increase.

When working with third party service organizations, clients are generally looking to reduce costs, as most such firms offer lower prices than instrument manufacturers.   But, because these businesses are generally smaller or constrained to one or two physical locations, their travel costs can often make them as expensive as the manufacturer.  Or, so it might seem...

Here is something to consider; When calling the manufacturer of an instrument, you are paying for a very narrow service on just that instrument.  Makes sense, right?  However, that FSE is likely only going to be able to work on just that instrument.   The Beckman Coulter engineer can't  work on a Tecan liquid handler and vice-versa.   When you look at the wide variety on instruments in your lab, the accumulation of service travel charges (and multiple varying labor rates for that matter) can bust even the most generous support budget.

Independent Service Organization (ISO) can help reduce costs. However, when working with an ISO it is important to understand what other products they can work on.   The same engineer who works on a Beckman robot, may also work on a Tecan...or a Hamilton...or an Agilent.    Having one FSE who can service multiple instruments from numerous manufacturers means you can amortize your travel charges across several instruments from different vendors.  That is something the individual instrument manufacturer cannot do, which ultimately makes their seemingly  'lower travel rate' much more expensive.

This is especially important for multi-vendor service (MVS) providers like Agilent CrossLab, Perkin Elmer OneSource, Unity Lab Services...etc.  These large organizations are able to offer their clients single point-of-contact for all their instrument service needs.   They typically have a large network of smaller ISO's who can help reduce labor costs and often, move with greater agility than instrument manufacturers.  When Site Manager and Vendor Relations Managers at MVS companies take the time to understand and maximize ISO capabilities  they can reign in travel costs and provide faster service while managing a smaller number of providers.

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March 22, 2018 by Kevin Keras

First Things First...

Scientist are well accustomed to "First Principle" thinking.  It's an approach that dates back to Aristotle and holds that before you can solve a problem, you must distill exactly what is known to be absolutely true.  By focusing on only known facts, it is much easier to postulate a solution which is based upon a solid foundation of fact.  That foundation allows you to speculate on causal factors but such leaps are always based upon core principles.

Sound familiar?   Well, if you are a Field Service Engineer (a good one), then this is the motus operandi with which you approach everyday troubleshooting. The trick here is to ask lots of questions before you even lay your hands on a failed instrument.   Many times, a user or researcher may get frustrated by such probing, so it is important to explain up front, why you are asking.  Just as a doctor cannot prescribe a treatment for a sick patient without reviewing their medical history, an FSE cannot hope to repair a failed instrument without first knowing it's recent history. Both should operate under the "first, do no harm" methodology.  

When was the last time it worked correctly?  When did you first notice a failure?   Were there any environmental changes in the lab (power, air, floods..etc)?   Many times, after such probing, an FSE can find very important facts that will make diagnosis faster and more reliable.   A PC or software upgrade, a robot crash, a spill...etc.

So, to all those researchers who need to get a failed instrument back online, just remember...it is in your own best interest to share as much info as you can to assist the FSE.  And to you FSE's...ask, ask, ask.   First, do no harm.  No guessing.

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March 6, 2018 by Kevin Keras

Remotely Possible?

How often do you PM a ....well, anything in your lab?  More often than not, the answer will either be 'once a year' or 'never.'   While the latter response may be due to budgetary constraints, or indifference, it is usually a recipe for disaster.   Things break if you don't maintain them and they generally break when you need them the most.   Periodic Maintenance (PM) is always a good idea, but back to my original question...how often?  Most people choose to PM once a year because that is what the manufacturer recommends.  However, this might not be the best strategy for your lab or a particular instrument as it does not take into account utilization.   It goes without saying that something that is used everyday, or more than one shift per day will require more frequent PM's than something that is used occasionally.   The challenge for many labs is just how to keep track of that utilization and how to pro-actively maintain based upon actual usage.  Figuring that out will help forestall major failures on high usage instruments and also stretch support budgets for lesser used devices.  

A recent report by Astea International Inc.(Horsham, PA) , a leading global provider of service management and mobile workforce management solutions titled "6 Biggest Field Service Trends To Watch Right Now" highlights a sea change shift in field service from reactive to pro-active.   The report highlights the rapid adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT) to enable field service organizations to remotely monitor client assets to create added value by scheduling maintenance based on performance degradation or utilization as opposed to "because the manual said so."    Monitoring research lab instruments is very different than production equipment, but at the end of day, ensuring that instruments are properly maintained so that they are available when needed will always be a winning strategy.

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September 6, 2017 by Kevin Keras

Covered Under Warranty?


CRASH!!!!    Your 8-channel liquid handling robot arm just raked across the deck and one of the z-axis rods looks bent.   No problem, just call the manufacturer and have them come fix it, after all, it is still under warranty...right?   Well, maybe...

Most instrument warranties cover parts and labor but, that usually comes with the expectation that the failure is due to normal wear and tear, not abuse or unintended usage.  Using the liquid handler failure above as an example, the 8-channel arm likely got damaged because it failed to move to a safe Z-travel height before moving in X or Y.    But, was that because the arm failed to execute that command or because the programmer failed to instruct the arm to do so?   While a failure such as this might not occur in assays that have been running successfully for some period of time, they are more common when the user is still developing the assay or debugging it.   This type of failure could also occur because an operator forgot to retract the arm after some assay interruption or error condition.

Many OEM's (Original Equipment Manufacturer) will work with you to get the instrument back online and some may even be tolerant of such failures to the point of covering the associated costs under their warranty..but, you will most likely find there is a limit to their understanding.   If an instrument fails under normal usage, OEM's should and will cover repair costs but if an instrument fails again, or frequently due to operator error the OEM could and should charge for parts and labor and travel, even though the unit is under warranty.  Although such a stance would be unpopular for end-users, it is really no different than what you might experience in other areas of your life.  If you use your SUV to haul a boat that exceeds the vehicles gross towing rate you will probably damage your transmission or rear axle.  Should you expect Ford or GM pay for that?   The honest answer is, no.

Whether you bought the instrument new and are under the original warranty, or if you have purchased an extended warranty, make sure you understand just what kinds of failures are covered.   Ask up front.   Even if you purchase refurbished instruments, there is a limit to they nature of the failures that are covered (BTW - you should always insist on a minimum of a 6 month warranty on refurbished equipment). New or used, a warranty is a quality statement by the provider.   Buying instruments "AS IS" or with a "Money Back Guarantee" should set off alarm bells that the low price option that looks so attractive today, could prove to be a costly investment in the future.   Caveat Emptor...   

What options should you consider when the warranty expires?   That will be the subject of our next blog...


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August 11, 2017 by Kevin Keras

Got Liquid Handling Problems? Part 1

We can help...

Been A While Since You Had Your EVO or Genesis Serviced?


The LabSquad can provide a variety of cost-effective service options;

  • Basic Tune-Up PM's

  • Comprehensive OEM-Style PM's

  • Performance Verification

  • Relocation Assistance

  • Annual Service Contracts

Just let us know how we can help!


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July 11, 2017 by Kevin Keras

Clean Up Your Act... Uh, Instrument

Okay, it's been awhile...a long while.   For someone who has never been accused of being the quiet type, I cannot believe it has been this many months since I last blogged.  

Ugh.   I need to clean up my act...

On that note, I thought I would remind readers on the importance of proper decontamination of instruments prior to service.   Field Service Engineers work on a variety of instruments from numerous labs.  They rarely have the benefit of knowing what protocols, reagents or solvents have been in contact with a failed instrument.    

Every repair or PM procedure from The LabSquad starts with a decontamination.  We ask customers to perform this procedure prior to a visit to save time and to tag the instrument's decon status.  Even then, our engineers always ask the user to verify decon prior to beginning their work.  You can never be too careful. For depot (return to factory) repairs, we will provide a Decon Form that must be filled out and packaged with the returned instrument as we do not want shippers (...your, ours, freight carriers) to be exposed to any 'badness.'


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February 24, 2016 by Kevin Keras

Let's Go Cycling!

Thermal Cycler Verification

Occasionally, your PCR yields may not be what you expected or have been experiencing.   A great deal of time can be spent looking at primers and buffers, or even your DNA samples but as is often the case...you find out it is a thermal cycler issue.   It usually happens at just the wrong time too...

Adding a temperature verification of your thermal cycler block (or blocks) is a great way to beef up your SOP's to ensure that your PCR runs smoothly.

Here at TheLabSquad we run a 12 point (probe) test as part on our standard PM procedure. It only takes about 15 minutes per block but you wind up with a graph of the ramps and a PASS/FAIL score.  This is done using an ISO 17025 certified tool that is calibrated annually.

As with any process, ensuring that your major variables are accounted for upfront makes a huge difference in your end results.

So, if you haven't had your thermal cycler  PM'd in awhile, now might be a good time to check under the hood (lid) before you go cycling.


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August 24, 2015 by Kevin Keras

Robots In The Hood

Will the liquid handler robot fit in a "Standard" hood? Probably one of the more common questions that liquid handler sales people are asked, and of course...the answer is not so simple.

Why? Well, the question is not specific enough.Generally speaking, there are two flavors of fume hoods found in life science labs. Permanent hoods are floor mounted structures that often include swing away access doors that allow instruments to be wheeled in/out of the protective environment. Portable or bench top hoods, as you may surmise are more easily installed or moved about a lab. Both types perform the same basic functions:


- to protect the user from inhaling toxic gases (fume hoods, biosafety cabinets, glove boxes)
- to protect the product or experiment (biosafety cabinets, glove boxes)
- to protect the environment (recirculating fume hoods, certain biosafety cabinets, and any other type when fitted with appropriate filters in the exhaust airstream)

So...back to the original question about liquid handlers... Currently, very few multi-channel liquid handlers will fit in permanently mounted hoods. The Hamilton Open Nimbus, Agilent Bravo SRT (not std Bravo) and PE/Calper Zephyr are the most common liquid handlers found in hoods, due mainly to their shorter stature.

A number of liquid handler manufacturers now offer options the turn their robots into self-contained, benchtop hoods. By providing saftey shield doors to restrict deck access, the robot itself is isolated from the lab and lab personnel. Two important features enable these setups to fully mirror their permanent mount enclosures.

HEPA Filration- High-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA),remove (from the air that passes through) 99.97% of particles that have a size of 0.3µm. HEPA filters are critical in the prevention of the spread of airborne bacterial and viral organisms and, therefore, infection.

UV Lamps -Ultraviolet sterilization is useful for targeted elimination of microorganisms in air and water.  UV lamps can be manually controlled by the operator, or they can be controlled using robot I/O. A word of caution on that approach through...looking at UV lamps without proper eye-protection can cause serious eye damage! If you have the robot control UV lamps it is best to incorporate user prompts the force an operator to initiate the process and reminds them to don eye protection.

Finally, if you already own a liquid handling robot and it was not designed to include shielding/HEPA/UV options, or if it is too large to fit in your hoods, you can always have a customer hood designed for it. This is often the simplest and least costly route. Our colleagues at Biodirect offer this service.

Source - borrowed gratuitously and heavily from Wikipedia Fume Hoods

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July 24, 2015 by Kevin Keras

About My Lab... Part 1 - The Questionnaire


Okay, let's make this one simple...

Click HERE to answer a few brief questions about how your lab approaches instrument support.

All info is confidential  We will publish results in an upcoming post.

Shortest darn blog all year...


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July 6, 2015 by Kevin Keras

A Positive Image

Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes.    However, what separates laboratory automation from industrial assembly or manufacturing applications is its reliance on the assumption that everything will behave as taught.  Well, as life teaches us...things change.   Industrial automation has practiced total process control for decades.  TPC aims to identify all variables in a process and predict the likelihood of failures.   Only when you can identify and estimate the risks points in a process, can you predict (or control) the outcome.   

Let's look at a common process involving a liquid handling robot performing a basic 96-well mtp plate replication.   We'll keep it simple to illustrate the concept of TPC.   Assume there is a nine position deck (3 x3) and the source plate (mother) is in location A1 (rear left) , the destination plate (daughter) is in A3 (rear right) and a box of disposable pipette tips is located in C1 (front left).   Pretty simple method for the robot; Get tips from C1, aspirate 100ul from A1, dispense 100ul into A3 then eject tips back into A3.  What could go wrong?  A lot.  First of all, we will assume that every location has been properly taught.   Somehow, the right consumables have to be placed on the corresponding deck locators.  This could be done manually by an operator or automatically by the liquid handling robot gripper or an external robot arm.   Next, the robot the has to properly attach the tips and reliably aspirate/dispense the liquids, then eject the tips back into the tip box.

How do we know if the operator put the plates and tips in the right locations?  How do we know that the plates or tips are oriented correctly or that they are seated flush in the locators?   We don't..and neither do most liquid handlers.   Some clever programmers have gone so far as to use visual prompts (pictures of how the deck should look) to assist operators in populating the deck prior to running assays.  But, who is to say that the operator really gets it right?   Additionally, what happens if a tip gets hung up on a mandrel?   Crashes and spoiled assays can be the end result of 'things going wrong.'   That is why process control is important.  Now, what could we do to ensure proper consumable placement and operation/


Vision sensors are an ideal tool for quality control.  Available from numerous vendors (Cognex, Keyence, Omron_ and others), vision sensors are compact and low cost devicess that allow users to capture a known good image which can then be used as a template to test for matches.  They include built in cameras, illumination and I/O along with software for inspecting and training.   Unlike Vision Systems, which are often highly programmable frame grabbers, sensors are go/no-go devices that provide fast 'bad/good' decision making.

A sensor could be attached to a liquid handling robot arm and driven over consumables prior to a run to see if the plate or tips match a template.  Most sensors have the ability to save multiple images and can communicate via simple digital I/O.   A robot developer can then use the robots I/O to initiate inspections that either verify and initiate a method or flag an operator with an error message.   In my prior blog we talked about static issues and how they can impact disposable pipette tips.  Imagine now, using  vision sensor (looking horizontally) to inspect the robot mandrel for the presence of a hanging tip.

I am sure there are other possible uses for vision sensors in your lab operations...it wouldn't require a 'visionary' to come up with a few.  Let us all know if you have some  ideas?


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