There are three primary responsibilities of a lab manager—managing operations, budgets, and people. Each can be assisted by the use of digital tools, which have been gaining in popularity in recent years, demonstrating a boost in efficiency and productivity for labs. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought forward a heightened need for digital transformation of lab operations, specifically remote work support.
However, as with any decision-making process, there are factors to consider when reviewing what type of digital tool may best benefit your lab. Lab Manager asked a variety of lab professionals and industry experts to share their experiences with digital tools and the benefits of implementing these technologies. Below is a roundup of responses that can act as a guide for those looking for solutions for their lab.
Integrating the right digital tools into your work process can increase productivity. A lab manager can use lab-tailored digital platforms to facilitate equipment booking, remote instrument operation, and manage workflow.
Managing schedules of multiple lab facilities manually can be a real hassle—enter Clustermarket (formerly known as Bookkit) and Skedda. Clusterkmarket is a lab-specific tool that allows you to manage and book your equipment remotely. Alternatively, “Skedda is a highly customizable platform, which allows limiting booking durations and usage amounts for individuals and groups, enforcing buffer times between bookings, and setting appropriate advance-notice restrictions, to name a few,” says Jonathan Fagg, director and co-founder of Skedda. Both platforms have free basic plans and paid subscription options for increased support and features.
Remote instrument operation
When it comes to digital lab operations, remote desktop and control of instrumentation has become a new norm. Aleksandra Popowich, PhD, research associate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has been dropping off her analytical samples at New York University and Columbia University, where the lab managers use Anydesk or iLab to gain remote access to the instruments.
Todd McEvoy, PhD, site manager, Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals, and his team at Intertek Allentown, PA, use the Netop platform to remotely control instruments and obtain data that can be processed at home. However, one of the concerns around remote access technology is data security. McEvoy mentions that Intertek has gone to great lengths to protect data by utilizing multiple layers of internet security.
There are different solutions to digitize workflow in a lab, depending on its focus.
If your lab is focused on research and development (R&D), Quartzy might be a platform to explore. “Quartzy empowers R&D organizations by streamlining research workflows, business processes, and supply chains, and ultimately boosts lab productivity,” says Sara Schonfeld, head of growth marketing at Quartzy.
If your lab is looking to digitize notebook entries and major workflow components like instruments and inventories, Labforward’s digital solutions (Labfolder and Laboperator) can help to facilitate remote management of these activities. “While the Labfolder ELN (electronic lab notebook) has enabled scientists to safely and compliantly store their research digitally, Laboperator has allowed laboratories to control and monitor existing devices remotely,” says Tomás Lopes da Fonseca, PhD, head of marketing at Labforward.
In budget management, Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets are the standards. However, if part of your duties is to manage grants, Spendlab.org might be helpful. The founder of Spendlab.org, Robin Stewart, explains the platform’s mission: “Spendlab.org provides a bird’s-eye view of all funding for a lab so that lab managers can easily update grant assignments or adjust spending plans—all without lengthy back and forth with financial staff or deep-dives into accounting systems. The budget visualizations are also a quick way to make sure researchers and admins are on the same page. These benefits are all the more critical in remote work situations, when communication is challenging enough as is.”
When working remotely or at reduced lab occupancy, staying connected to your employees and projects can be challenging. In this case, helpful digital tools can be divided into three categories: communications, project management, and troubleshooting.
McEvoy uses Microsoft Teams to stay in contact with his team and customers. When speaking about video conferencing, McEvoy emphasizes the need to be mindful of two things: 1) The general assumption that everyone is familiar with the program and has access to it is not always true, and 2) Video conferencing has another side: it can project a “closed-door” policy and isolate employees at the office. To ensure neither of these scenarios occurs, he recommends checking in about the program before the call, and getting out of the office to be face-to-face (socially distanced) with employees as much as possible.
Asana and Trello are two project management tools that offer centralized communications through integration with Gmail, Slack, and Google Drive. Trello can be used for group task assignments like lab clean-ups through its “to do,” “doing,” and “done” cards that have details, due dates, and checklists.
When it comes to project management, McEvoy creatively uses LIMS (laboratory information management system) to manage workflows, reassign projects, and track time. “Typically, LIMS is sample-centered, while Intertek’s custom LIMS is a project management tool. Originally designed and implemented by Intertek 10 years ago, we use and adapt LIMS to reflect current work processes and boost lab productivity.”
Different digital tools facilitate different stages of troubleshooting. To be notified immediately, you can use an instant messaging platform like Slack or WhatsApp to communicate with your team. Afterwards, it will depend on what the issue is. When it comes to equipment, McEvoy suggests video conferencing for technician virtual visits. If there is an issue with standard operating procedures (SOPs), Priya Sharma, radiochemical analyst at Bureau Veritas Group (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada), recommends CompliantPro, “a very effective application, that [lab] managers use to review any SOP anytime remotely and help the employees working in the lab with any analysis procedure’s deviation and any uncertainty in the process.” Ultimately, the nature of the problem will dictate if, and how, it is possible to address it remotely.
Case study: digital platform AccessBV by Bureau Veritas Group
Digital tools offer clear benefits to managers and staff within the lab, but what about benefits to clients? “When a testing market is saturated, and your lab can’t lower the price, you need to consider a point of differentiation to the customer. For Bureau Veritas Group, it was to create a digital platform called AccessBV,” says Bassam Thomas Choueiri, business growth and diversification leader, Commodities MER at BV in Dubai (United Arab Emirates).
AccessBV is part of Bureau Veritas’ digital lab initiative in the commercial space. It was developed in-house using customers’ feedback. AccessBV provides three advantages: reduced turnaround times, easy access to data, and a reduced price for testing. This online platform allows customers to track their samples from the point of collection to a test report and automatic invoice. Moreover, customers can easily extract data from their reports with just one click. By allowing customers to see their test results directly, AccessBV saves lab managers at least 1.5 hrs per day (or a full day of work per week) on follow-ups.
With AccessBV, Bureau Veritas can secure bigger contracts and grow the business by providing operational and customer service excellence. Suppose your lab is considering building a custom digital platform like AccessBV. In that case, Bassam shares two key questions: “What are the platform’s prioritized features (automatic invoicing, data extraction)? And how do you educate customers on the benefit of the platform?”
Strengthen your lab with digital tools
The COVID-19 pandemic showed how labs need to be adaptable to any scenario, and digital tools can ensure lab operations aren’t affected by unexpected challenges. As McEvoy explains, “While in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, building occupancy restrictions (ranging from 25 to 75 percent) required us to use digital tools at Intertek Allentown so that we could avoid significant delays on client projects. These tools became a new norm.”
Ultimately, your lab size, budget, and workflow specifics will affect what’s right for you. In the meantime, you can take advantage of available free trials to explore commercial digital tools or reflect on the benefits of a custom digital platform.