September 6, 2017

Covered Under Warranty?

(Maybe...)

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...

 

August 7, 2013

Lab Instrument Support Survey

New MVS Survey

Oh behalf of HTStec, The LabSquad is pleased to inform you that their latest survey titled "LAB INSTRUMENT SUPPORT STRATEGIES TRENDS 2013" is now underway. 

"Proper maitl_files/labsquad/blog_images/Survey/Survey/survey.jpgntenance of laboratory instrumentation is an important consideration to ensure that lab assets remain available to researchers. Minimizing downtime makes the research process more efficient. A variety of support options are available from original equipment manufacturers (OEM), small third party independent service organizations (ISO), large multi-vendor service (MVS) providers and internal support staffs. Understanding the needs of lab users is essential for service providers to ensure customer success."

If you count on your lab instruments being in 'research ready; condition, please take a moment and fill out this most important survey.    JUST CLICK HERE

July 15, 2013

Motor Madness - Part I

If it moves...it probably has a motor.  There are a number of different types of motors within lab instruments and while repair or diagnosis of many of them are beyond the expertise even the most savvy field service technician, it is helpful to know a bit about them and what makes them tick (or spin).

The most common motors are simple AC or DC motors. As their names imply, each uses a different current scheme to achieve basic rotation but a simple brushed DC motor has five parts:

  • Armature or rotortl_files/labsquad/blog_images/Motor Madness/BrushedDCMotor2_opt.jpeg
  • Commutator
  • Brushes
  • Axle (shaft)
  • Field magnet

In many motors, the outer metal housing contains at least two field magnets (North and South).

The armature, also called the rotor as it rotates about the axel, is an electromagnet made by coiling thin wire around  two or more poles of a metal core.

The commutator is a pair of plates attached to the axle.  These plates provide the two connections for the coil of the electromagnet.

The commutator and the brushes enable for the "flipping" of the electric field" part of the motor.tl_files/labsquad/blog_images/Motor Madness/motor-labels.gif

Brushed DC Motors have two coils of wire around a rotor in the middle. Surrounding the coil are two magnets, both facing in the same direction. When the coils are facing the magnets, electricity flows into them. When electricity flows into a coil, it creates a magnetic field, and this magnetic field pushes the coils away from their magnets. As the rotor turns, the current shuts off. When the rotor has turned 180 degrees, each rotor faces the opposite magnet. The coils turn on again, this time with the electricity flowing in the opposite direction. This creates another pulse, pushing the rotor around again. The rotor has electric contacts on it, and there are small metal brushes that bump against the contacts. The brushes send in electricity, turning the motor on and off at the right times.

Operationally, all you need to do is apply the proper DC voltage at the nominally rated current and the motor will spin. For simple devices this can be done via an on/off switch.

A brushless DC motor has a permanent magnet on the inside of the rotor, such that its north and south poles are perpendicular to the axle. Coils surround the rotor.  These coils function similar to a brushed motor in that hey give out timed pulses to push the magnet, spinning the rotor. Because there are no brushes however, the motor cannot control itself. Instead, it is attached to a speed controller ciruit, which gives pulses of electricity at a certain speed to control the motor. The faster the coils pulse, the faster the motor will spin.  This is called Pulse Width Modulation or PWM (more on that in Part 3).

On a final note, other than brushes, there reall isn't much that can be easily fixed on a DC motor.  For older devices that are no longer supported, you can find rebuild services that can repair toasted armature (more common on larger motors).   The most tempting way to test a DC motor is of course to apply power...but please, if you do this make sure to disconnect the motor from any mechanical drive components (pulleys, bests, chains, linkages...etc) first.   As always, if you choose to ignore this advice, please do not send nasty emails, legal notices or graphic images of your physical injuries...

Next Up: Part 2 - Stepper Motors

 

June 3, 2013

Good Reads about Multi-Vendor Support

Thought I would share a few articles and interviews that talk about Asset Management and Multi-Vendor Service support.

Next Generation Pharmaceutical-Outsourcing Asset Management,  Bob Moore – GE Healthcare, interview

Lab Manager Magazine – The Evolving Service Model   ; Good overview of service offerings from GE, Agilent, PE and Thermo Fisher.

BioScience Technology.com – Managing More Lab Assets

GEN – Lab-Asset Management Gets Smarter; older article (circa 2008) but shows that Asset Mgt within life sciences has been around for awhile.

May 21, 2013

Separation Anxiety?

Most labs have used floor mount or bench top centrifuges for separation based assays for decades.  Whether spinning samples to remove air bubbles, spinning down cellular debris or isolating supernatent, there are numerous manual access centrifuges on the market, but when it comes to automation, the choices are limited.

For a number of years, Agilent (formerly Velocity11) has offered the compact VSpin.  VSpin has a two position rotor with buckets for std microplates.   It can spiV11_prod_big_vspinn up to 300o rpm/ 1000g and has an automated door that allows direct access to plates using an offset robot gripper.   Units can be stacked on top of each other for increased  use of vertical workspace.  The Optional Access2 loader can also grab the plate and present it externally to a liquid handler gripper or top loading plate mover like Twister2 or KiNEDx.

Hettich also provides a larger unit called the Rotanta 460 which can accommodate 4 plates at speeds up to Hettich_Rotanta_46_RSC_Front_Hatch6200prm,  but is a bit more of a challenge to integrate as the robot gripper fingers need to reach into the unit from the top.  I have seen this done with Mitsubishi and Staubli robots and Tecan actually integrates this unit under an EVO liquid handler accessible via an open locator in the deck.Ixion3

Sias’s Ixion is a compact unit, similar in size to the VSpin, however plate access (total of two) is through the top just like the Rotanta and can spin up to 2000rpm.   This unit integrates nicely with Sias’ Xantus liquid handlers.

Finally, BioNex offers the HiG centrifuge which can also spin two plates.  The bright orange color makes this unit hard to ignore…and a closer look shows that this unit may be BioNex HiGthe best of the bunch.   With an automated lid that retracts from the top, the HiG does not need a plate loader like the VSpin as plates can be accessed by just about any robot gripper.   At 5000g, BioNex claims this unit to be the fastest robot accessible centrifuge available.

Maintenance requirements for each of these devices is similar.   All include high-speed motors so proper ventilation is a must.   Bearings must be greased, sensors cleaned and pneumatics (door opening, plate loaders) checked for leaks.   Additionally, rotors and buckets should be checked for cracks or other signs of wear.   As noted in previous blogs, rotational speeds can be verified using a digital tachometer but you may need to remove covers to gain access to the rotor (kids, don’t try this at home…call a professional).   As always, if you ignore that last piece of advice, don’t come crying to me when your friends make fun of you because you have a mircrotitre plate permanently embedded in your cheek…

May 14, 2013

Every Picture Tells A Story, Don’t It?

A picture is worth a thousand words…so even at a reduced frame rate of 15FPS, one minute of video has to be worth 900,00 words.” – Me

For better or worse, advances in cellular communications arecameraphonemaking the once seemly impossible, trivial.  Specifically, I am referring to video communication.   Just about everyone has a ‘smartphone’ these days and it is hard to find a new phone that does not include a camera.   The resolution of these cameras is incredible (the Apple iPhone 5 = 8 MegaPixels) and product stunningly clear videos and images.

Video applications such as Apple’s FaceTime and Skype make face to face remote communications simple, fast and cheap.   For service organizations, this has providedthermal imagingfield based techs with an incredible tool for diagnosing instrument failures.    There are even iPhone apps that now allow users to perform thermal imaging (how cool is that…no pun intended)!  Let’s face it, the pressure these on-site techs feel when faced with a failed instrument can be enormous.  End user anxiety and a ticking clock only add to the stress.   The ability to ‘phone a friend’, point the phone at the instrument and have a real-time conversation about such failures brings an added dimension to peer review.

On the wired side, I have visited many research labs that have added low-cost USB or Ethernet cameras to their automation systems that allow them to monitor status remotely (many times from home, over a weekend or at night).   When combined with remote network access tools like PC Anywhere or LogMeIn, it is possible to deal with simple application errors and continue assays or applications that would otherwise had to wait for human to come into the lab and simple press a key.   Remote observation in this fashion requires network access and must always include IT departments to prevent unauthorized access.

Still, many labs will not allow non-employee cameras or video use within their labs.  Thisskype5is short-sighted (IMO), and unfortunate.   I understand the competitive nature of pharmaceutical or biotech research and the commercial implications of potentially providing competitors with a glimpse of a labs inner workings, but let’s face it…it would take a pretty savvy bunch of people to gleam something worthwhile from a phone camera.  Instrument failures that render an instrument ‘down’ are generally easier to diagnose and repair, however it the aberrant or irregular failures that could benefit immensely from remote observation.   Unless an instrument or system is under a service contract it can be very expensive to pay for a service tech to sit and watch for a reported failure (they always happen when the tech leaves, right?).

Most labs require non-disclosure agreements or safety training prior to granting non-employees access their labs and the time is well past to include the use of remote diagnostic tools, particularly cellular video in such protocols.   Perhaps seeing is believing?

May 10, 2013

What is the opposite of TMI?

I am a big fan of Lab Manager Magazine.   I am an on-line and print subscriber anlab managerd find it to be a great source of information regarding lab trends and support.

Having said that…I was a bit disappointed by a recent “Ask The Expert” interview by Tanuja Koppal, PhD.  It was called “Optimizing Lab Services: Evaluating the Single-Vendor Option.”   You can read the full article by clicking here.

Although there are some good insights there were some major pieces of informationthe-godfather-brando-150x150missing.  For starters, it does not mention who the subject of the interview is.  I will give Dr. Koppal the benefit of the doubt and assume the interviewee is not fictitious, but I have a hard time understanding why he/she would need to anonymized.   Is there an MVS Mafia out there that requires a witness protection program?   Secondly, all the MVS providers whom the user evaluated are also anonymized.   I guess I could understand that given that many of these larger providers may have legal teams that would give any crime syndicate a scare.

In the spirit of peer review, I think it would be extremely helpful to both MVS providers and potential customers to know who this customer is and how they made the selection they did.

Who knows, using this feedback, maybe next time they need a contract, someone would be able to make them an offer they couldn’t refuse…

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 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 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?”