moving boxes for the lab

Lab Relocation: What to Do the Day After the Move

Getting the lab up and running takes coordinated effort

Gail Dutton

Your old lab, finally, is closed. Everything from your most sophisticated instruments to your routine reagents has been boxed and transported to the new location. You’re ready to work. Right?

The answer is often “no.” The day after a physical move, a lot of work remains before your lab is fully functional again.

“The day after the physical move can be something of a madhouse,” says George Rohlfing, president of laboratory relocation specialist BTI. “Vendors are walking over vendors to get things done. Once the freezers are online, lab managers are trying to get things into place, trying to get instruments calibrated, and ensuring the items are hooked up to power, vacuum systems, and gas. It can be chaotic.” Your relocation plan, therefore, should include the days or weeks after the move, too.

Ideally, you will open your new lab with an accurate inventory of literally every item in the lab. RFID is the gold standard for inventory management. RFID tags can tell you not only which items left the old lab and arrived at the new site, but their serial numbers and their qualification, calibration, and temperature mapping requirements. If your lab isn’t set up for RFID, use bar codes and scan each item as it enters. At the very least, designate someone to monitor the door and check off each arriving item from the inventory list. This is a starting point for smooth functioning going forward.

Lab relocation experts advise:

  • Scheduling time to unpack and ensure packing materials are removed promptly. The time required depends on the complexity and the scale of the move
  • Checking equipment positioning. This involves more than physical fit or workflow optimization. Depending on the instrument, thermal heat from windows or the cycling of heating or cooling vents may affect its performance
  • Placing temperature monitoring systems on freezers and refrigerators, as well as for lab specimens waiting for those coolers to reach proper temperatures
  • Ensuring vendors are on-hand to connect, recalibrate, and certify that equipment is operating optimally. This often requires coordinating with multiple vendors even when your logistics company has multivendor engineers onsite

The time this takes varies with the complexity of the lab. Getting one or two instruments up and running again could take a day or more. But, “the post-move portion for labs with thousands of instruments could take one or two weeks,” says Angelo Filosa, portfolio director of OneSource, PerkinElmer’s lab services division. Instrument recalibration and requalification is a key issue. The US Pharmacopeia segments equipment into three tiers. Tier one includes centrifuges, balances, and other equipment that require no or minimal calibration. Tier two includes HPLC, mass spectrometry, and UV and IR Fournier transfer equipment, which needs benchmarking and may need qualification and partial validation to meet Good X Practices. “Tier three is similar to tier two, but involves more complex instruments, such as nuclear magnetic resonance and some mass spec machines,” says Filosa.

Knowing which tier your equipment falls into will help you better estimate your lab’s relocation recovery time. Once the equipment is recalibrated and functional, benchmark it and compare the results from those conducted before the move. This assures users that performance is unchanged or that any changes are documented. Therefore, you can ensure that recalibration doesn’t introduce errors into the data.

One of the biggest “day after” issues is whether the new lab is actually ready to receive the equipment. “By ‘ready,’” Filosa says, “I mean whether the utilities that are required for reinstalling the instruments not only are turned on, but are in the right place. For example, mass spectrometers require 220-volt power, so is that available where the machine will sit? Such details often aren’t coordinated well,” and can affect day one plans.

Another common surprise for lab managers is that, “equipment doesn’t fit where it is expected to go,” Rohlfing says. As a result, instruments may be situated in less-than- optimal positions.

Despite preplanning, sometimes unexpected details arise that require renovating the lab space after move-in. “Once, we had to have a crane bring in instruments through the window,” Filosa recalls, “when the freight elevator couldn’t handle the lab’s larger equipment.” That lab manager’s “day after” plan had to then factor in construction to repair the hole in the side of the building.

In another example, Rohlfing says, “a client outfitted new lab space, but used copper drains rather than fiberglass. That shut down the lab for a month.” Day one, therefore, should include determining whether the new lab needs any unplanned renovation work. “Sometimes we have to pivot,” adds Rohlfing. “Depending on the size of the lab, it probably will take a week to feel comfortable after a move,” Rohlfing says.

Sometimes, relocations run smoothly. In 2020, Michigan Technological University (MTU) relocated its CLIA-certified COVID-19 testing laboratory over the weekend and was up and running on Monday. That was possible because it was a small lab. The PCR area is about 600 square feet, with a 1,200 square foot extraction lab, and a 100 square foot office.

“It helped that we created the lab a few months before, so the sequence of events was fresh in people’s memories. We also had generic wind-down/ramp-up checklists for labs on campus, David Reed, PhD, vice president of research, says.

Originally, “We set up in the biomedical engineering teaching lab and thought we’d be operating for two months. That didn’t happen. By summer, it became clear we couldn’t have the lab in a classroom space if students returned to campus.” The lab moved a quarter mile to the Great Lakes Research Center. This interdisciplinary space featured a rapid lab configuration infrastructure that allowed utilities to be dropped where they were needed fairly inexpensively, as well as a wet lab that had been used for K-12 outreach.

Relocating to that space meant moving biosafety cabinets and the centrifuges and vacuum plates within them, as well as the PCR instruments, freezers, HIPAA-compliant lab computing system, and the pipettes and reagents.

“We got the infrastructure ready first, qualified the cabinets, and set up the computer system and freezers." Sunday, the PCR and RNA extraction equipment moved to the new space. On Monday, the lab was taking patient samples in the new facility. "There was no downtime," Reed says. That said, “our personal protective equipment was stored in the hallway, and we had to find the pipette tips (among the boxes).”

The move went smoothly, he says, “because we had a project manager who had lots of experience in laboratory logistics as well as lab analytics. That person, Mike Abbot, laid out the schedule, ensured electricity was dropped in, and coordinated the entire move.” Without tight coordination, it’s almost impossible to avoid interruptions.

Larger labs, though, often move in stages, during several weeks. That requires planning to operate portions of the lab in multiple locations until everything is at one site again. Therefore, consider workflow and staffing assignments to minimize day one disruption.

Some locations also require goods to be quarantined prior to entering the lab, Rohlfing says. Items for biosafety level (BSL) 1 and 2 labs usually can be brought directly into the lab, but BSL 3 and 4 may need to be quarantined offsite or wiped down or misted to ensure there is no contamination. “Blood-borne pathogen and virus labs are two examples. Lab managers can easily miss that detail when trying to get everything packed and relocated.”

MTU side-stepped that concern because the SARS-CoV-2 RNA isn’t infectious once it is extracted from the viral particles, according to Reed.

To make day one in the new lab space go smoothly, Filosa advises stringent project management and a contingency plan to deal with any and all glitches.

Therefore, designate one individual to track progress within your own lab for the physical move and to ensure you have the proper governance structure and coordination. Coordinate with vendors, the construction team, and even the architect to ensure that their plans actually meet your needs. “When things go wrong, it’s often because project managers aren’t in place,” he says.