Digital tools can enable lab managers and scientists to achieve their ideal vision for the laboratory by improving sample protection, increasing productivity, facilitating collaboration, and making data easily accessible. It can be challenging to determine where to start in the move to digital, though, how to make the ideal a reality, and which tools are a good fit for your lab. This core lab story explores real life obstacles to adopting a new digital platform, common considerations, and some of the benefits that arise.
Download this story now to learn more about how a laboratory manager can help bring their lab into the digital age and improve their workflows.
EVERY DISASTER IS AN OPPORTUNITY
The story of a core laboratory’s move to digital monitoring
Casey tapped “acknowledge,” silencing the flashing open-door notification on Sandra’s phone. “Got it.” Sandra, Casey’s lead technician, was cleaning out the last two shelves of the final minus 80, checking inventory, organizing the samples, and discarding any no longer needed. Casey had popped down with a question on a project but stayed to celebrate the occasion. Minus 80s had always been the biggest stress point for the lab.
“Thanks.” Sandra grinned. “But without lab drama, we’ll be stuck with family drama over the holidays.” They had just been reminiscing over ‘The Incident’. Almost a year ago, a freezer crashed during the holiday closure. Catastrophic failure in the middle of the night, December 24th. Because of course that is when a perfectly healthy-seeming freezer would die.
A security guard noticed the alarm when the temperature was already into the -50s. He eventually found someone in maintenance, who rang the lab’s emergency contact. Or rather, the lab’s previous emergency contact. Casey had taken on the lab manager role three months prior, and the new contact information she passed to the maintenance team apparently hadn’t made it into the system yet. The previous lab manager was out of the country, and Casey wasn’t notified until the next day, after the freezer had thawed. And she had needed to drag Sandra away from family to help sort and assess.
It was sheer luck that there were no client samples in the freezer. They lost test samples, cell culture aliquots, and several expensive kits, but the core lab could recover from those losses. Still, the “what ifs” were enough to keep Casey awake at night. The incident identified several weaknesses in the process. Most were addressed interdepartmentally, but she didn’t rest easy until a digital monitoring system was in place.
Still, Casey obsessively checked the freezer status- es on her phone for the first few months, watching for signs of impending failure. Over time, a few alert notifications for unlatched doors or rising temperatures demonstrated the system functionality, and the lab collectively relaxed into a regular performance review routine for older units. The biggest relief for
Casey had been seeing the alarm escalation feature in action when one of the technicians came down with food poisoning. Sandra was next on the escalation chain, but she was away and rejected the notification, sending the alert right to Casey.
Going digital shouldn’t have been a tough decision—Casey had come into the core intending to do so. But the current operating costs and slim margins for the core gave her pause. Casey was expected to run the lab as a profitable business and to do so with- out raising the cost of any services. The lab already ran at capacity, barely keeping up.
Casey just wasn’t positive she could justify the cost of going digital and of potential disruption to ser- vices in the process. Besides which, it was a small lab with only five technicians. Of course, there was a lot to be gained through efficiencies and fail-safes, and maybe that would even out any losses quickly. But where should they start? The indecision led her to backburner the project until she could build a solid business case. It was a lesson learned.
The upgrade brought the lab other drastic improvements. The digital service they chose wasn’t a massive, ‘everything-under-the-sun is included’ package. Casey looked primarily for easy customization and modularity that would enable them to build
out and scale back as needed. “Future-proofing,” she had seen it called. The list of needs was simple: alert notifications (escalating, please) for cold storage and incubators, real-time remote monitoring of instrument performance, and maintenance tracking. She also wanted a solution that would integrate with future digital lab additions, from a sample management system to electronic lab notebooks and data systems. It needed to connect to third-party instruments— the core’s assets were a complete mishmash of different makes and eras, some ancient. One day we’ll be free of Windows XP. Casey found an option that seemed keyed to smaller labs making the transition. VisioNize® Lab Suite from Eppendorf hit all the points on the list, plus a few bonuses, while providing flexibility to reflect size and scale of the lab. It was proving to be exactly what they needed.
Cores run a huge number of instruments. Casey knew this going in, of course, but was still somehow surprised when crunching numbers and planning maintenance events. The lab had a different paper logbook for each instrument with seemingly end- less scheduling and tracking spreadsheets. Sandra would spend an hour and a half each day performing the cleaning and maintenance tasks required before shutting down, updating maintenance lists
and logs. It took longer when someone else covered the tasks … and things would often get missed. Little things that needed fixing or cleaning during busy hours, like clearing a filter, often weren’t logged, making the records incomplete. Ultimately, the lab was reliant on Sandra’s experience and expertise to keep things running smoothly.
Casey knew why the lab needed to fix their maintenance system, but it still surprised her to discover that everyone was enthusiastic about adopting the new system.
It provided golden opportunity. Casey had worried about a lengthy setup and resigned herself to several late nights. The new system would track maintenance data on all equipment by serial number, but she’d need to enter some instruments manually and input the existing schedules. Instead, she turned the work into a celebration. The lab closed early one Friday, everyone divvied up the instruments, and they plowed through the record entry while sharing maintenance-related horror stories from the trench- es and laughing over absurdities before toasting to progress. Team-building exercise and piles of work accomplished at once.
Now, task lists and logs are consolidated. Maintenance is scheduled and assigned in the software, balancing the load between technicians and ma ing it far less time-consuming. Reassigning tasks around time off is simple and personal reminders keep everything on track. Nothing has been missed in months. If the pipette calibration needs to be postponed, rescheduling is a breeze. Linking the instrument manuals in the system has facilitated training, too.
The biggest, and perhaps most welcome, surprise for Casey was the boost in overall productivity. Equipment run status SMS notifications had seemed like a “nice to have” that wouldn’t have much effect on operations, other than perhaps psychologically. Because really, how different could it be from using timers? It’s not like I’ d start tracking productivity in 5-minute increments. The staff ran with it, though. Overall increases in sample processing volume seemed to reflect greater efficiency. Sandra explained that everyone was keeping busy with little jobs while samples were running—stocking tips, mixing media—a dozen minor daily tasks that add up. Between that and the maintenance improvements, they were finally tackling those “someday” projects that would improve operations if only they had the time … like cleaning and organizing the fleet of minus 80s.
Really, the digital lab services were making lab life a great deal easier while leveling up operations. Actual usage data for equipment was bulking up the quarterly reports in place of usage rates based on bookings. Complete digital logs allowed for comparisons of actual runtimes versus booking windows. The lab even had usage data for peripheral equipment, like spinners and shakers, for the first time. It was all being used already, adding new options for booking windows on thermocyclers and RT-PCR instruments that should enable increased utilization.
Time savings had been above expectations, but beyond that, samples and experiments felt better protected. Casey had brought their lab into the 21st century and accomplished more than expected in one year. She was excited to see what the following year would bring.
“And done!” Sandra beamed at Casey while shuffling some stray tubes in the cooler of dry ice.
“Amazing! How long has that been bothering you?” “You know I won’t admit to that many years.”
Sandra shrugged, then smiled again. “So, what’s our next project?”