July 24, 2015
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...
May 21, 2013
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 spin 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 6200prm, 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.
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 the 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…
April 9, 2013
It’s been over 35 years since the movie Marathon Man came out and I still have a fear of dentists. 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 work, 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 in 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?”
February 13, 2013
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.’
January 31, 2013
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
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.