A Lab App for That
In this article, we look at more general applications that are useful in the laboratory, no matter the type, as well as specialty apps from instrument vendors.
Not Just for Gadget Gurus Anymore
Over the past few years, the May issue of Lab Manager has featured a look at some of the apps available for use in the laboratory, whether they are running on a smartphone, tablet, or the web. This year, we are broadening the focus to include not only specialty applications from instrument vendors but also more general applications that are useful in the laboratory, no matter what its type. Some are useful for management and purchasing support, but most are apps you can provide to make your analysts and support team more productive.
Related Article: Science Apps for Smartphones and Tablets - Hype or Useful?
Whether created by vendors to support their instruments or products, created by independent organizations, or programmed in-house, most apps can be assigned to one of the following categories:
- Product Selection
- Product Control
- Continuing Education/Reference Data
- General Function Support
While there are many potential ways of grouping applications, this one is fairly straightforward and relatively self-explanatory, but feel free to use alternate systems if they map better to your lab.
Product Selection includes apps that are designed to help you select the most appropriate product for your laboratory. The caveat here is that most of these types of apps are designed to help you select between products produced by a single vendor. As long as you keep that in mind, unless your purchasing regulations restrict you to a single vendor anyway, these can be very helpful.
The ChemSearch app from Thermo Fisher Scientific, while technically a product selection app, is actually a portal into the catalog of Acros Organics fine chemicals. This app allows the user to draw a chemical structure and search by that, as well as by name, molecular formula, item number, CAS registry number, or keyword.
Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Nalgene Container Selection Guide allows your staff to simply select the container’s key criteria, and the app returns the most suitable container for the application. To further simplify ordering, it also returns the container’s part number and specifications.
Product Control has apps designed for the direct control of instruments and the collection of data. While they are most commonly developed by the instrument vendor to make their product more attractive, you will occasionally find some developed by third parties.
The Hanna Lab App, from Hanna Instruments, Inc., allows you to use your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch as a full-featured pH meter when linked to a Bluetooth-enaabled Hanna Instruments HALO™ pH probe. This app requires iOS 8.0 or later.
The Thermo Scientific™ Smart-Tracker™ is another example of one type of these apps. This app is used in conjunction with Smart-Tracker devices to remotely check the devices’ or samples’ temperature and geolocation. This could be quite valuable for high-priority samples that must be maintained below a specified temperature.
For laboratories with Agilent ICP-MS systems running MassHunter 4.1 or later software, the Agilent Technologies ICPMS mobile app is ideal. This app not only allows you to check the instrument and run status remotely, but it also allows you to remotely alter the run conditions, all through your smartphone or tablet.
On a slightly different tack, the DuPont Diagnostics section of DuPont Nutrition & Health features the DuPont BaxApp. This app enables users of the Du- Pont BAX® System to open software files sent to them via emails or posted on cloud storage services. This allows them to review the status of their food pathogen testing without the need to access a computer on their internal network.
Continuing Education/ Reference Data includes apps that can be subcategorized as applications that are either used to train personnel in the appropriate use of analytical techniques or to provide reference information for use in calculations and comparisons. While many organizations emphasize continuing education in their hiring, the budgetary realities of a given department frequently mean that you are limited in what you can actually provide.
Distributing the appropriate continuing education apps to your analysts provides one way to enhance the training that your limited budget provides. Keep in mind that these are suggested as additions, not as excuses to cut whatever continuing education you currently provide.
An example of the former type of app is TA ANALYSIS from Mettler-Toledo International Inc. This app allows those using thermal analyzers from Mettler-Toledo to access application methods published by Mettler-Toldeo, as well as reference data from a variety of thermal analysis tables, and to access their library of web-based seminars.
Another example is the Chromatography/ Sample Prep App from Advanstar Communications, Inc., publishers of LCGC. This app, which is also available as a PDF file, provides an indispensable terminology guide covering liquid chromatography (LC), gas chromatography (GC), and sample preparation.
Going beyond the terminology, additional educational apps in the field of chromatography include the HPLC Simulator Free, provided by the regents of the University of Minnesota, and the HPLC Troubleshooting app from Bikul Koirala. The former app allows users to modify a wide range of chromatographic parameters and observe their effect on a simulated chromatogram. Adjustable parameters include the selection of isocratic and gradient elution modes, temperature, flow rate, injection volume, etc. The latter app is designed for users new to HPLC to assist them in troubleshooting basic issues.
An example of the latter type of app is TA Properties from Mettler-Toledo International Inc., as well as their Mettler-Toledo Library app, which provides access to a wide range of information available from Mettler-Toledo. Included in this library are a variety of Mettler-Toledo white papers, videos, webinars, and regulatory compliance and quality control information.
General Function Support includes apps that don’t supply a specific analytical function but provide more general support, such as calculation support, whether for setup or analysis, remote access, or safety functions. A good example of this type of app is a scientific calculator.
My personal preference is for RealCalc Plus from Quartic Software, but there are many others. For this type of app, you could standardize to a particular one, but I think this is one area where it is more reasonable for your personnel to use their personal preference. Depending on their background, they might be more comfortable with a standard algebraic calculator, such as one of those pioneered by Texas Instruments; others might prefer the reverse Polish notation (RPN) calculators, such as those pioneered by Hewlett-Packard. As long as each app has been validated, it seems wiser to allow an analyst to use the type he or she is most comfortable with, as this will lead to fewer mistakes. If you want to be inundated with options, run a search for “scientific calculator” in either Google Play or the Apple App Store. Having a calculator available in this day and age may sometimes seem a little archaic, but they are still necessary for calculating the concentration of standard solutions, estimating a component’s retention time, or manually checking an automatically calculated result.
Beyond calculators, there is no reason you can’t use smart devices to write full reports, SOPs, or any other type of document. Even if your organization has standardized to the Microsoft Word document format, there are many office suites for smartphones and tablets that can generate Word-compatible files. A number of these are free; some are available at a low cost. I personally like Office: TextMaker Mobile from SoftMaker Software GmbH because of the greater flexibility it seems to have. Tablet users might prefer their TextMaker HD product, which is optimized for the larger screen and includes additional features.
Once users start creating documents on their smart devices, they will want to print them as well. Lack of this capability was a failing of early versions of Android, but between its evolution and the apps currently available, this issue has been resolved as well. The apps of choice will depend on the brand of printers that your organization is using. In many instances, these will likely be Hewlett-Packard printers, in which case I’ve found one of the more useful apps to be their All-in-One Remote. This app allows you to print over a Wi-Fi network or directly to a Wi-Fi-enabled printer. Features include the ability to monitor printer consumables, “scan” in documents via your smart device’s camera, and scan directly from multifunction printers. For more complex sets of printers, HP’s HP ePrint app allows you to print to many printer types over a Wi-Fi network or via e-mail to ePrint-enabled devices.
Of course, not everyone uses HP printers, but almost all printer manufacturers have their own app for printer support. Apps are available for Canon, Epson, Brother, Samsung, Lexmark, Kodak, Kyocera, Ricoh, Xerox, etc. Even the paper companies are getting into the act, with Print Hammermill from Aftograf LLC, which supports a variety of Epson, Canon, Samsung, and Xerox printers. You may discover that users must install more than one printing app to handle all of their printing requirements.
A more interesting type of support app is one that allows remote access to your instrument. I found the app TeamViewer for Remote Control to be a lifesaver in terms of providing remote support, as it allows you to remotely access and control Windows, Mac, and Linux systems. The fact that it also allows you to access and control PC-based instruments is just a bonus. TeamViewer for Remote Control is only one of a family of TeamViewer products optimized for different roles. One advantage of this app is that it works using standard web protocols and ports, so most firewalls cannot detect or block it.
For other types of work, I’ve found Parallels Client from Parallels IP Holdings GmbH to be incredibly convenient and much friendlier to use than Microsoft’s tools. It allows users to access terminal server/RD session host and Windows PC host. An added benefit is that if your organization has invested in Parallels Remote Application Server, you can publish virtual Windows applications and access them for up to 60 percent less than by using Citrix XenApp and XenDesktop.
When deciding how to implement apps in your work environment, it is important that you give some thought to the ethics of it. Note: there is nothing unethical about using apps, as long as you comply with all licensing, which may or may not include a monetary payment. The ethical question that I am referring to is the concept of “bring your own device” (BYOD)1, which can cut several ways.
There are many concerns regarding this concept, some pro, some con. One concern is data security, so IT will likely want to install monitoring software on a user’s device. What happens if the user doesn’t want IT monitoring what he or she does? Can the user be fired? If you implement a mandatory BYOD policy, how is it handled? What happens if the user/employee doesn’t want to use his or her device for corporate activities? While usually newer devices have more memory, how do you justify installing organizational apps on a device when it is still so easy for a user to fill the memory with his or her own apps?
In many instances, employees might prefer to use their own devices, but the strings attached can be tricky and also put the organization at risk. It is very easy for monitoring programs to be abused; in that case, how is that invasion of privacy handled? If the organization issues smart devices to its employees, how do you handle the reaction from those who object to having to carry two devices?
It’s a tricky balancing act, but one that is definitely worth working out, as the advantages of using apps are too important to ignore.
1. CIO Staff. All About BYOD. CIO (2014). Available at http://www.cio.com/article/2396336/byod/all-about-byod.html . (Accessed March 20, 2016)
Working with IT
Operations in most modern labs are so dependent on computers that if the computers go down, the workflow stops. As most IT groups are as overworked as the lab’s staff, it is definitely worth developing a good relationship with the IT group. While this might not result in the underlying problem being corrected any faster, it usually makes the IT group more understanding if you must deviate from their standard protocols to keep the lab in operation. In the end, both groups are there to meet the organization’s needs, so in that respect an intergroup power struggle damages the organization no matter which group “wins.”