Prasanna Tamarapu Parthasarathy, a research lab manager at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, likens lab equipment to the “backbones” of any successful project. Without the properly functioning tools in place, you are unable to move forward with your work. She explains, “There's certain equipment that we use everyday. If any one of these is broken, an entire experiment will be postponed. It will have a domino effect.”
Thus, it is critical for lab managers to keep equipment maintained in top condition to avoid any downtime and also costly repairs. While lab managers are ultimately responsible for operational efficacy, Parthasarathy empathizes that equipment maintenance is a team effort. This means having “people involved at the right place and at the right time.”
Within the laboratory, Paris Grey, a research lab manager at the University of Florida and co-founder of the website Undergrad in the Lab, advises that an effective equipment maintenance program should start with the proper training and onboarding of lab members. She says, “This should include learning what sounds and equipment behavior is normal and what to do if something doesn’t seem right.”
Lezlee Dice, a laboratory manager at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, also says overseeing equipment maintenance is a daily task. She explains that a lab manager needs to stay active in the lab and establish open lines of communication with team members to remind them of their responsibilities and to detect any issues that may arise. She cautions, “Prevent the creation of an environment where workers are afraid of getting in trouble if they report problems with equipment.” While Lucy J. Towler, laboratory supervisor at American Acryl, has worked in different labs of varying sizes and functions, she underscores that the same best lab management practices apply for equipment maintenance, no matter where you work. Her overarching principle is to “keep a lab neat and organized.” This goes a long way to prevent contamination or spills that can damage equipment. Towler also involves the entire lab team by requiring a weekly lab inspection checklist to be filled out by technicians on a rotational basis who then report any issues to her. This checklist includes components related to equipment operations, waste management, and safety items. She comments, “Prior to weekly assignments, one tech was doing them all and the other ones got complacent.”
It’s also best practice to put systems in place to schedule time for performing preventive maintenance. These can include chore calendars for routine tasks and calendar reminders about regular preventive maintenance items. For example, when Grey’s -80C lab freezer almost had a meltdown more than a decade ago, she set up a monthly calendar reminder to do the required maintenance (e.g., vacuum the filter, check seal) to avoid near-catastrophic events in the future. She has stuck to the schedule ever since.
Dice further suggests using equipment sign-in sheets, especially for instruments located in shared facilities, for accountability purposes. This paperwork also documents usage to demonstrate the need for funding repairs or replacement in the future and who should be charged for consumables or other related expenses.
Responsibilities for equipment maintenance extend beyond the lab to other departments, depending on the internal organizational structure and overlapping functions or oversight duties. It is imperative for lab managers to maintain regular communications with these departments and ask for assistance when needed. In Parthasarathy’s organization, the facilities management department runs regular operational checks on instruments and reports back to her on the status. After she has reviewed the reports, they work together, as required, to schedule maintenance events. In turn, she makes sure that lab members openly communicate with other departments (e.g., facilities management, EHS) as soon as equipment issues occur (e.g., equipment malfunction, biohazardous material spill).
For Towler, who oversees a quality lab in the chemical industry, she has other instrument control requirements to meet. For example, her lab runs weekly QA/QC checks on instruments and control charts the results. Additionally, she maintains a predetermined calibration schedule and documents these results. Other efforts include physically tagging equipment that is in or out of service and making sure to have backup equipment in case something goes down.
Towler points out that most of these efforts stem from their recent ISO 9001 certification achievement. However, she says, “Honestly, ISO is no different than other quality programs that are in place. Most are just good quality practices that should be set up in any quality lab.” Therefore, lab managers can learn a lot by looking at such guidelines and reaching out to their own quality management professionals in-house to set up sound instrument control processes.
Lab managers also can get assistance with equipment maintenance from outside the organization through equipment manufacturers and third-party service providers. A range of services may be offered, from site visits to online trainings for lab managers. For some equipment, especially high-dollar items, purchasing a service contract with features that include routine maintenance and repairs by a qualified technician may be a good option to invest in.
Don Newton, a clinical laboratory consultant, explains it may make business sense to devote resources to service and maintain an instrument, instead of replacing in a few years. He says, “Keep in mind that, while lab technology changes rapidly, sometimes, based on what that [equipment] does, it doesn't change much at all. So, assess the condition and function of the [equipment], and what, if anything, has changed for that area of the lab. If your changes are small and it's still like new, then a longer service contract might be a good fit.”
Newton also says that service contracts can be used as a bargaining chip in the purchasing process, and further cost savings can be achieved by partnering with another lab facility. Although, he warns, “While price is a driving factor, it's not the only factor. In the case of service contracts, you get what you pay for. So, sometimes it's better to pay a bit more now for stronger services later.”
Another option may be an extended warranty. Parthasarathy says they buy a warranty for most of the equipment in their lab to have safeguards in case of a malfunction and to minimize the number of emergency maintenance site visits. Overall, lab managers need to do their homework to know what’s covered by any service contracts or warranties and what can void any contracts in place (e.g., using nonapproved parts or reagents).
Field technicians are another valuable resource for lab managers. Dice advises to take advantage of their technical know-how during a site visit and have them train a responsible user on the proper way to maintain that equipment. Additionally, Newton says, when deciding on a service provider, it’s important to evaluate the service reps for their areas of expertise, that they are certified on the specified equipment, and what their response time may look like based on multiple factors (e.g., workload, commute).
Lab managers also can strive to take a data-driven approach to identifying equipment maintenance needs and detecting potential malfunctions early on. This is now further enabled by the use of remote monitoring and smart technologies that provide real-time data collection and insights that can be accessed from anywhere. For example, Elemental Machines is a company that leverages the power of artificial intelligence and data science to streamline lab workflows and improve processes. Clients use the company’s Internet of Things devices to remotely monitor equipment conditions and look for data anomalies that may indicate problems. The use of these devices provides a more complete dataset (e.g., temperature readings every 15 seconds) from which lab managers can base decisions.
John Morgan, director of marketing at Elemental Machines, says clients most often monitor cold storage equipment, incubators, and animal facilities where a controlled environment is required. In these cases, he notes an equipment malfunction could result in a catastrophic loss of valuable specimens and reagents. Morgan relays they have had multiple clients who noticed unusual temperature patterns emerging from their cold storage equipment data.1,2 In both cases, these labs were able to show data collected with Elemental Machines devices to the manufacturer and obtain hardware or software fixes.
Additionally, a lab manager can be alerted if a temperature exceeds a specific threshold. Morgan says, “For instance, we recently had a power outage here in Cambridge on the weekend. One of our clients is right around the corner. He got a text alert at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday and was able to go into the lab and load up his freezers with dry ice to save his samples.”
Finally, Morgan explains the need to use data to optimize laboratory operations and improve the overall reproducibility of science. “You can’t control what you don’t understand,” he says. “Our CEO, Sridhar Iyengar, often talks about the ‘unknown unknowns.’ What might be going on in your lab environment that could be affecting your processes? Sometimes you don’t even know what it might be. Why not measure everything?” Therefore, lab managers should try to measure as much as possible to pinpoint issues and ensure laboratory conditions are reproducible. Case in point, Morgan mentions a client who observed irregular readings from their HPLC instrument, resulting from room temperature fluctuations due to the HVAC system.3 Once the issue was identified, the lab was able to take steps to correct it.