March 6, 2013 by Kevin Keras
If you or your lab currently use liquid handlers, or are planning to purchase liquid handlers please take a few minutes and fill out this labX survey.(click on the image below and you will be redirected to LabX)
Looking to buy a liquid handler? Try www.UsedLiquidHandlers.com
March 4, 2013 by Kevin Keras
We’ve been hearing a lot of our customers ask about various lab instruments being compatible with Windows 7 lately. Seems IT groups everywhere are struggling with the eventual demise of Windows XP. Already unavailable for new PC’s since 2010, Microsoft has announced that all support for WinXP will cease in April of 2014.
While most instrument OEM’s (original equipment manufacturers) are already making the move to Win7, a huge number of legacy instruments in labs are running XP. Manufacturers may not want to provide ‘backward compatibility’ for older equipment for two reasons; First, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Sounds lame, but most instrument software is developed with the OS of the day in mind. Trying to get the performance and reliability that users expect by supporting a major OS upgrade could lead to tons of surprises…ones that they won’t be paid to correct. Also, more than a few vendors have used this Microsoft phase out as a reason to obsolete older instruments and encourage users to upgrade to new hardware in order to get Win7 compliance.
If budgets don’t permit the purchase of new equipment desperate users should consider exploring the Windows 7 compatibility tool. One caveat is that you would be well advised to back up your WinXP first, or better still try installing your legacy applications on a new Win7 PC. It’s a lot easier to mess around with a new PC if you know you can go back to the original PC if all else fails…The following is gratuitously ‘borrowed’ from http://www.howtogeek.com
Using Program Compatibility Mode in Windows 7
It can be quite annoying when you try to install a driver or other software on Windows 7 just to find out it isn’t compatible with the new OS. Today we look at using the Program Compatibility Assistant, and troubleshooting compatibility issues so programs install successfully.
Program Compatibility Assistant
Program Compatibility is a mode that allows you to run programs that were written for earlier versions of Windows. The Program Compatibility Assistant detects compatibility issues and allows you to reinstall using the recommended settings. For example we got this error trying to install a music interface device driver for home recording.
After we closed out of the error, the Program Compatibility Assistant came up advising that the program didn’t install correctly. To try to install it again select Reinstall using recommended settings.
The Compatibility Assistant went through and fixed the issue and we were able to install the driver. The problem was the driver was designed for Vista and the the assistant automatically select the correct compatibility mode for us to install it.
Sometimes you might get a screen similar to this example where Virtual PC 2007 isn’t compatible with Windows 7 and you can check for solutions online.
After checking for solutions online, we’re shown that there is an update that might solve the issue.
Which points us to the Microsoft site to download Virtual PC 2007 SP1.
Note: Sometimes a program does install correctly and Program Compatibility Assistant thinks it didn’t. There are also times when you cancel an installation half way through and it pops up. If you’re an Admin and tired of seeing it pop up because you know what you’re doing, check out our article on how to disable program compatibility assistant in Windows 7 and Vista.
Program Compatibility Troubleshooter
There might be times when Program Compatibility Assistant can’t find a solution, or a program installs fine, but doesn’t work the way it should. In that case you’ll need to troubleshoot the issue. Right-click on the program icon from the Start Menu or in many programs the shortcut icon and select Troubleshoot compatibility.
Windows will detect any issues with the program and you can try to run it with the recommended settings, or go through the troubleshooting wizard. For this part of our example we’ll select Try recommended settings.
This option allows us to test run the program to see if the new compatibility settings fix the issue. Click on Start the program to begin testing it out. After testing the program and determining if the settings work or not click on Next.
If the program is running correctly you can save the settings and it will continue to run with those settings. If it didn’t work properly, you can try using different settings or report the problem to Microsoft and check for an online solution.
If you selected No, try again using different settings it will bring up the troubleshooter where you can specify the issues you’re having with the program.
Depending what you check in the screen above, you’ll be presented with other options for what is not working correctly. Where in this example it shows different display problems.
New settings are applied to the program and you can try running it again.
If none of the compatibility settings work for the program, you’re prompted to to send a generated problem report to Microsoft.
Manually Select Compatibility
Of course if you don’t want to deal with the Program Compatibility troubleshooter, you can go in and manually select Compatibility Mode. Right-click the program icon and select Properties.
Then click the Compatibility tab then check the box Run this program in compatibility for and select the version of Windows from the dropdown. Now it will always run the program in Compatibility Mode for the version of Windows you selected.
Hopefully running the program in an earlier version of Windows helps solve the problems you’re experiencing. Each program is different so the troubleshooting steps will vary. Most programs written for Vista should work in Windows 7, but not all of them. If you’re having problems with a program not working correctly on Windows 7 and have gone through the Compatibility Mode troubleshooter, your best bet is do search the developers website for a newer version or in their forums.
February 27, 2013 by Kevin Keras
The first lab robot was introduced byZymark 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 using 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 microplates. 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, welding 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’
- Agilent Technologies
- Beckman Coulter
- Dynamic Devices
- Hamilton Robotics
- Perkin Elmer (Caliper)
- Hudson Robotics
- Peak Robotics / PAA
- Perkin Elmer (Caliper)
- Precise Automation
- Thermo Fisher Scientitic
February 25, 2013 by Kevin Keras
February 13, 2013 by Kevin Keras
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 by Kevin Keras
For all you self-maintainers out there, some great reference sites;
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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 by Kevin Keras
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 top or robot-loaded centrifuge, these devices get a lot of use and 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.
January 31, 2013 by Blair Winans
Budget time…you know the drill. Salaries, supplies, new equipment and oh yeah, ongoing maintenance support. Has there ever been a more sexy and attention riveting topic than maintenance budgeting? Your options are pretty straight forward;
- Annual Service Contracts (typically 10-15% of purchase price, per year )
- Break/Fix Repair As You Go (cross your fingers, ready the checkbook)
- Basic Periodic Maintenance (pay for basic upkeep, then Repair As You Go)
If a particular instrument is critical to your labs mission you cannot afford downtime. And, while we are on the subject, exactly what types ofinstruments are mission critical? Of course, the answer to that question will be different for every lab and largely depends upon their focus area. For instance, if you have are in a cell biology group and have a high content imaging system such as a GE IN Cell, it might be wise to put that unit under a service contract with the manufacturer. This is advisable for any instrument that can be considered unique or expensive but could even be extended to relatively new technology such as microfluidic based analyzers. Caliper (now Perkin Elmer) provide a line of such analyzers for enzymatic assays as well as nucleic acids and protein analysis. The first and second generation instruments are still out there and they require a great deal of TLC and in depth operation and support knowledge. Newer versions of these refrigerator sized devices are much more compact and a lot less support intensive, eliminating complex laser alignments and environmental controls. Still, while the instruments themselves may be easier to service, the actual “microfluidic chips” that perform sampling and separation cost several thousand dollars each and users may run the risk of voiding the chip warranty if they don’t use the OEM to maintain the instrument. Stick with the OEM service contract.
Okay, so what instruments that are less specialized…do you really need to spend your precious budget dollars on annual service contracts? Let’s take a look at the staple of many labs, liquid handlers. There are literally thousands of such units from companies like Beckman Coulter, Tecan, Hamilton, Agilent and Perkin Elmer. These XYZ robots offer great pipetting repeatability and walkaway automation of mixing, filtration, incubation and other critical assay steps. A liquid handler that cost $100-150K ten years ago can still command a $10-15K+ price tag for an annual maintenance contract. That’s a lot, but is it really necessary? Liquid handlers, at least the good one’s from mainstream companies like those listed above have proven to beremarkably reliable. With even basic annual maintenance, these instruments can run trouble free for the foreseeable future. In fact, most OEM periodic or preventative maintenance (PM) procedures are just that, minimal approaches that clean, inspect and lubricate. One exception would be Tecan, whose EVO PM procedure calls for replacing all fluid path components making their PM (and subsequently their annual maintenance agreements) costs some of the most expensive. Is that necessary? Probably not, but one could argue that such a thorough approach is akin to performing a ‘field refurb.’ If your lab has GxP requirements, this would certainly be advisable, but otherwise you might think about doing this every other year. If you own a Beckman FX /NX, or PE Janus you might want to follow the Tecan lead, and get that ‘field refurb,’ especially if you have never had this level of service after several years of use.
Be wary of annual contracts for integrated robotic systems. A system with an industrial robot in a safety enclosure might tend to many additional instruments such as plate washers, readers, centrifuges, incubators and so on. If you apply the 10-15% of sales price logic to the purchase price of the system, you will find your coverage costs being inflated by things that could never fail like the extruded aluminum tables, the safety enclosure or even the design and build labor that was factored into the original system price tag. Better to look as the individual instruments in that system and determine their support costs piece by piece, not in the aggregate.
(In Part II of this post, we will look at the service requirements of thermal cyclers, plate readers and centrifuges).
January 25, 2013 by Kevin Keras
Ever walk through a research lab and wonder ‘how do they keep all this stuff running?’ Well, I do and I make it a point to ask. From the many labs I have spoken with, the definitive answer is…’depends.’ Not to be too snarky but the answers vary widely depending upon the type and size of the organization, however there appear to be three main approaches;
- Internal (users/tinkerers or more organized support groups),
- Equipment manufacturers (OEM) (service contracts or break/fix)
- Third Party Providers or ISO’s (Independent Service Organization)
Usually, the smaller the entity, the more more likely they are to self maintain. Service contracts from OEMs are expensive and everyone’s budgets are limited these days. Because of this, many end-users also double as the resident experts on the instruments in their lab. Although it is getting rarer, many larger biotech and pharmas have the luxury of dedicated internal support teams that provide support.
Mid size and large biotech and pharma have also relied heavily upon large multi-vendor service (MVS) organizations to provide coverage of all their assets. Well known names such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, Perkin Elmer, Agilent, Johnson Controls and GE Healthcare all provide whole site support for hundreds, if not thousands of instruments.
Each of the aforementioned have their pros and cons. Just bear in mind that no one will ever know as much about an instrument as the company that made it. They will have the design knowledge, replacement parts, procedures and tools to remedy just about anything that can go wrong. But (you knew there would be a but), it isn’t cheap. Typical service contracts are priced out at 10-15% of the purchase price of an instrument. If you have to self maintain don’t despair. Often the best approach is to try to keep up with the basic PM schedule that the manufacturer recommends. Kinda like changing the oil and filters in your car. This is the approach many of the MVS companies use and for good reason. Basic PM’s are the most affordable and least invasive procedures to keep instruments ‘research-ready.’ In fact, the first thing most OEMs do when they begin a service contract is to perform a PM as they know it can often head off major repairs that can erode profit margins. Finally, ‘Break/Fix’ is more prevalent than you would think but be forewarned…the cost of repairs can be astronomical,
Truth be told, there is no perfect solution.
So what is the right strategy for your lab? Well, that depends…
Tell us how your keep your lab up and running.
January 23, 2013 by Kevin Keras
Okay, so we have a blog…big deal. I mean everybody does, right? Just what the world needs. Turns out, there really aren’t a lot of places to go on the web that provide info about maintaining lab instruments. The purpose of this blog will be to try to point out useful resources wherever they may exist in an effort to help folks keep their lab instruments research-ready. Now, since our forte is plate-based instruments, we really won’t be looking at the whole gambit of things you can find in a lab. No freezer talk here. Ditto for water baths, microscopes, MS or GC gear. What we will be talking about are liquid handlers, plate readers, washers, incubators, thermal cyclers…you get the picture. Feel free to chime in and please try to keep it cordial. We are not looking for sales pitches or feature salvos, just sound advice and bits & pieces of useful info.