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

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 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!

March 18, 2013

Is it a System or is it a Liquid Handler?

Remember Razzles? – ‘is it a candy or is it gum?,” so the TV commercial went.   (I actually razzlessubmitted a contest entry calling it  ‘Ghandy…a peaceful coexistence of seemly incompatible delights.’  Not bad for 9yrs old and still waiting on a reply.

Servicing liquid handlers can be a lot like Razzles in that you start out thinking you are working on one thing only to show up and find out that you have something else going on.

System Types:

There are essentially three types of plate based automated systems commonly found in life science research labs.

Robot Centric – A robot arm (manipulator) delivers all consumables to/fropaam a variety of plate based instruments and storage devices.   While many such systems include a liquid handler, they along with other instruments are controlled via a separate scheduling software that oversees the assay steps and ensures proper timing.   Common examples are Hi-Res Biosolution ACell , PAA automate.it,  Agilent BioCel and Caliper (PE) Staccato.

Distributed Robots – Similar to above, except that there are multiple robot arms connected via a conveyor belt or other plate transporter.  Each arm is dedicated to a small number of instruments which each carry out the assay in a sequential (first station to last) fashion.  Again, one or more liquid handlers may be present in the system however they contain programs that are initiated 

dim4

by a higher level scheduling software.  Such systems were very popular in the pharma industry (Thermo Dim 4, Zymark Allegro) rush to process more compounds per day (HTS and uHTS) looking for new chemical entities, but nowadays you be hard pressed to find many survivors still in operation.

Liquid Handler Centric- In this instance, the liquid handler is the heart of the system, which is to say, the liquid handler software runs the assay (no higher level scheduling software).   A large number of these types of ‘systems’ consist of just the liquid handler, by itself, simply carrying out pipetting operations.   However, as many mainstream liquid handlers now include robotic gripper capabilities, these devices start to be 

evo-system

stretched into more capable systems that automate more of the assay freeing up lab personnel for more high value operations.   The plate gripper can load/unload consumables for multi-plate runs or can deliver consumables to shaking, heating, cooling or waste locations on the liquid handler deck or may move them off-deck to plate readers, washers, centrifuge, incubators, thermal cyclers, reagent dispensers or storage devices.   Examples can be see from well known vendors such as Beckman CoulterTecanHamilton RoboticsAgilent and Perkin Elmer.

Conclusion – when exploring your options for servicing a liquid handler, be sure to consider any peripheral equipment attached to that device.   If the end-user expects their entire system to PM’d during a routine visit, the service tech may be either the bearer of bad news or a well prepared and valued service provider.

January 25, 2013

How Do I Support Thee, Let Me Count The Ways…

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 ElmerAgilentJohnson 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.