July 24, 2015

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...


June 15, 2015

Take CHARGE of Static Issues

Most people are taught to think of electricity via the analogy of running water.  The volume of water moved from point A to point B is analogous to voltage while the rate which the water flows is like electrical current.   Multiply the two together and you have power(P=IxE).  

Static electricity is the opposite of current electricity, in that it does not move.  It just builds up between two non-conducting materials (like plastic and rubber) and sits there, waiting to discharge (Google Triboelectric Effect).  If you have ever touched something and got a brief shock, you have likely experienced static build up and provided the path to ground that discharged that potential energy charge.  If you ever touched something and got a prolonged and painful shock, you have probably been electrocuted and may be reading this from the Great Beyond.

Static build-up occurs in environments that are dry.  Water molecules help diminish charge build up.  Insofar as laboratories are concerned, static is generally not an issue due to controlled temperatures and humidity...but they are not immune.   This can be routinely found to be an issue with ill-behaved liquid handlers.   Disposable plastic pipette tips have been known to 'hang up' or not eject from their mandrels  when humidity levels drop.   I have seen tips appear to dance in mid-air, only held to the mandrel by static charges.   This is dramatically visible with lower volume (384) tips as their mass is less to begin with and is exacerbated by the use of rubber o-rings on the dispense head mandrels.   Rubber, plastic and lack of humidity are the perfect recipe for static cling.

So what can be done?  Well, the simple solution is to add humidity to lab.  If the lab's HVAC system is not capable of effecting changes, you could place a humidifier near your liquid handler.  Just be careful as it is a fine line between adding moisture to the air and saturating your robot.  Get a can of Static Guard from your local grocery store.  These sprays add moisture (water and alcohol, with minerals and salts removed) and are very effective (albeit temporarily) when sprayed directly on rubber o-rings.   Another longer lasting and more pragmatic solution would be to place an ionizing fan right on the liquid handler deck, near your tips racks.  These devices add electrical charges to the air (anions, or negative ions) and the fan blows it across your tips which can change the electron imbalance just enough to offset clinging tip issues.

Don't let your labs environment make you retreat from automated assays....wait for it....here it comes...."CHARGE."    That just happened.  BAM.  

Next Blog - Vision Sensors (they can be used for lots of stuff, including pipette tip issues...)


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 28, 2013

By The Book

Did you ever work with a field service engineer who was just plain awesome...someone who always went above and beyond to ensure your success?  If so, you have probably asked yourself ''what would I do without them? ' Sadly, that hypothetical question, all too often, becomes reality.

For any number of reasons (some good, some not so good) people are transient.  As the old saying goes, no one is truly irreplaceable, so the best protection vendors can provide for their customers is to ensure that more common procedures are documented. For example, irrespective of who is doing the work, a preventative maintenance procedure should always be the same. Each step, every tool, replacement part, lubrication or adjustment should be captured in a document that can be used to cross train FSE's so that your instruments always receive consistent maintenance.

Whether you are working with a new FSE to support a new install, or existing instrument don't hesitate to ask to see the procedure they will be following. Motl_files/labsquad/blog_images/By The Book/BookHead.jpgst vendors won't share all the details, but many will let you have a glance and most will provide checklist that highlights the work to be done.

If a vendor cannot produce documents for common procedures (like a PM). before they commence their work you should be concerned. I'm not saying that you are about to be mis-treated, however how can you be certain that the requisite work will be accomplished if there is no guideline? You wouldn't conduct an assay without a documented procedure and you shouldn't allow anyone to work on your instruments without one either.

If they can't show you 'the book', then throw the book at them!

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 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…

March 26, 2013

Nervous…System Support

My last post about standardization and open source scheduling software for integrated systems got me thinking more about the post-sales support sidon knottsde of those systems.

As many of you know, systems can be very expensive so end-users are making critical decisions on behalf of their employers, both on how well their money is being spent and what are reasonable expectations as to when the system will begin to show a return on that investment.    There is always concern about that ramp up time and the problems you may encounter along the way, so the question of warranty becomes very important to the lab manager or principal user of the system.

Most system integrators go through a very similar process regardless of who the end user is.   It generally all starts with a customer needs assessment, whereby a sales mabiocelnager (usually accompanied by an Application Scientist) asks a number of questions prior  to generating a system concept proposal.   While it may seem tedious to the end-user, (I know what I want, why can’t these people just give me their quote?) this is a critical step in ensuring long term success.   I have been involved in a number of situations where a customer had budgeted hundreds of thousands of dollars but could not provide a single manual method they wanted to automate.    Not good.

Weeks (more like months) after  the system is designed/proposed and agreed upon/purchased by the customer, a date is usually scheduled for a FAT (factory acceptance test) whereby the customer visits the integrator and goes through a “buy-off” checklist prior to shipment.  This buy-off is best done with beckman systemthe actual customer methods (minus real chemistry) to ensure that the system performs as agreed upon prior to shipment.   Remember, shipment means breaking down the system and packaging so that it can be “re-integrated” yet again upon arrival at the customer site whereupon it goes through the SAT (site acceptance test) which is basically the  same buy-off as the SAT, albeit with actual chemistry.   Once completed, you get a handshake (maybe a hug if it goes really well) and “TA-DA !”you own the system.

Most integrated systems come with a one year warranty.  This can mean different things to different integrators but in my experience, entails parts and labor only (travel is nostaublit included).  It also does not include operator induced failures like crashing a robot into an instrument.  In general, most systems include a fair number of third party instruments that the integrator does not manufacture and they don’t make a lot of money providing them.   These instruments come with their own warranties (usually 1 yr) and the integrator almost always passes these on to the end-user, acting as the first point of contact if a failure occurs.   Since the instruments can often reside at the integration firm for several weeks prior to FAT,  it is important for end-users to understand their warranty…’what is covered?’, for how long?’ and ‘when does the clock start ticking (upon shipment, acceptance)?’.

As mentioned in prior posts, an extended warranty for an integrated system can often cost 10-15% of the purchase price of the system.   Some integrators offer an incentive (discount) if you purchase such an extension with they system, or prior to expiration of the standard one year warranty.   Should you choose that option?

In short, the answer is no and I will tell you why.   Let’s assume we are talking about a $350K ELISA system that includes a robot mover, bar code reader, liquid handler, plate washer, ambient storage hotels and plate reader.    Those majorbeckman systemcomponents probably account for less than 50% of the price of that system.   The remainder is comprised of  things that don’t wear or break (system tables, enclosures, scheduling software, PC and …labor).   That last one is a biggie.    Integration is hard work and proper design, build, programming and testing prior to  SAT can include hundreds of person-hours.  That is commonly referred to as NRE or non-recurring engineering.   A warranty for such a system could cost upwards of $50K, or more (not including travel) but you really should only care about the instruments…not the other stuff.

So, if you are faced with a decision regarding extending the warranty of your integratedautomateitsystem…push back.  It’s pretty easy to determine the list price for each instrument in a system and request a contract that is based on just those costs.   You could also go directly to each manufacturer and request contract pricing on their product only.   If that is too time consuming or a management hassle you don’t need, you may want to reach out to one of the major MVS (multi-vendor services) providers (ThermoPEJohnson ControlsAgilentGE) or smaller ISO (independent services organizations) like The LabSquad.

Don’t be nervous about system support…be informed.

March 21, 2013

Is your instrument A-OK? If not, you may want to fix it PDQ (or you may be SOL) – LOL!

Is there an acronym for excessive use of acronyms?  It seems every industry has a long list of abbreviated jargon to capture the essence of what is important to their needs…and the life sciences industry is no exception.   Below are a just a few of the many acronyms that we encounter in our daily support of lab instruments and some brief definitions.

OEM – Original Equipment Manufacturer, generally the name of the company who sold the instrument.  However…there have been numerous mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcies over the past decade or more so your BioRad thermal cycler might be sitting on the bench with an older model with an MJ Research logo, or your Zymark Twister robot could now say Caliper Life Sciences (which is now Perkin Elmer)…you get the idea.

MVS – Multi-Vendor Services, a generic term that describes a single services provider who works across multiple vendor brands and product lines.   Giants include Unity Lab Services (Thermo), PE OneSourceAgilent, Johnson Controls and GE Healthcare.

ISO – Independent Service Organization, anyone other than the OEM.  Typically a local provider who works directly with customers or acts as a sub-contractor to MVS’s.

PM – Preventive Maintenance, sometimes called Periodic Maintenance.  A pro-active service performed prior to instrument failure designed to catch wear items before they escalate into more costly failures resulting in downtime.

MTBF – Mean Time Between Failure, a spec provided by some OEM’s that statistically predicts instrument reliability.   Failures are generally defined as abnormal occurrences that cannot be easily remedied by an operator and render the instrument or system inoperable.

MTTR- Mean Time To Repair, the average time required to repair a failed instrument or system.   Total number of failures / total time instrument/system is unavailable for intended operation.

IQ – Installation Qualification, documents that the correct instrument was received and installed properly. IQ can be performed by the user or the vendor (typically both during the site acceptance of a device or system).

OQ – Operational Qualification, tests that the instrument meets specifications in the user environment. OQ can be performed by the user or the vendor.   Some instrument include simple diagnostic routines that can be run by users, however a number of such tools are password protected or visible only to service personnel.

PQ – Performance Qualification, tests that the system performs the selected application correctly. PQ must be performed by the user, or in the case of some GxP or CLIA labs, a third party that provides hard data.

CV – Coefficient Of Variation (not your curriculum vitae, or resume),  a normalized measure of dispersion of a probability distribution.  Insofar as labs are concerned, this is generally a reference to unexpected errors across a microplate.   The resulting errors or outliers may often be traced back to liquid handling or pipetting performance.

GLP 0r GMP – Good Laboratory/Manufacturing Practices, a set of standard operating procedures (SOP’s) to ensure the uniformity, consistency, reliability, reproducibility, quality, and integrity of chemical (including pharmaceuticals) non-clinical safety tests.   Insofar as automation of assays is concerned, these SOP’s may contain periodic OQ & PQtesting of individual instruments, using NIST traceable tools and including analytical date (where applicable) .  Techs working in such labs may be required to show tool certificates prior to beginning work and produce validation results.

CLIA – Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments, any facility which performslaboratory testing on specimens derived from humans for the purpose of providing information for the diagnosis, prevention, or treatment of disease or impairment, and  for the assessment of health.   As with GxP above, CLIA labs follow stringent SOP’s regarding instrument support or verification, often requiring certified documentation (audit trails).

Did I forget any?  Don’t be shy, let me know.   TTFN!