Tips and Tricks for Lab Efficiency
Posted on July 15th, 2020
The content of this post first existed as a three part series published throughout June and July 2020.
They were put together at a time when many laboratories were shut down and reflecting on the organisational habits they want to adopt, adapt or abolish altogether.
Hopefully some of the below will help in this regard and at the very least make you think about your processes.
If you think we’ve missed a corker, please don’t hesitate to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Perkins – Senior Application Chemist
Only buy what you need!
By that I mean chemicals and standards.
Often, when you buy chemical X it will be £35 for 5 mL and £39 for 100 mL, seems obvious which one to buy!? The 100 mL, better value for money … but, I only need 1 mL and at some point will need to dispose of the remain 99 mL, which costs a lot more than any “value for money” you might think you get for bulk buying…
Ah… you say, hang onto the remaining 99 mL – I am sure I will use it in the future! But what about the expiry date? If it goes off before you use it – what a waste!
Simon McInulty – Senior Support Engineer
If you can’t find the time to be healthy, you’ll have to make time to be sick.
It used to be a gamble to restart a PC connected to an instrument. Would it start an update that takes hours? Would it save my settings? Would it turn back on at all?
Even if you dodged all of those bullets, it would take at least 5-10 minutes. When you’d be working to tight operating procedures on shifts, and nothing was obviously wrong, it wasn’t exactly a priority. So people just wouldn’t restart their machines.
Even now when computers are far more reliable and restarts take a couple of minutes, this technical hangover persists.
Computers need local disk space to run smoothly and reliably but after a while their page files fill up, causing a significant drop in performance. This creates knock on problems which have the potential to knock out systems. These then need addressing, often halting operations for days at a time through callouts.
In my meandering experience, many problems can be avoided with one simple, effective and highly clichéd piece of advice. It only takes 5 minutes and you only have to do it once a week.
Turn it off and on again.
Sean O’Connor – Account Manager – Midlands, Wales and the South West
Quieten your lab with Cryostatic Cooling.
It’s essentially a bench-top cryostatic cooling device that uses ethanol to provide cryogen-free cooling to temperatures as low as -40˚. It’s not right for everyone but for flavour extraction purposes it’s proving to be a solid, low maintenance option.
As well as saving certain labs cash on Liquid Nitrogen, it has less easily quantified benefits for the people who use it.
No more hauling dewars into the lift, then racing them up the stairs. No more loud tttssssssh of Liquid Nitrogen going into an instrument. No more fear of the cylinder venting fully in an enclosed space reducing oxygen below safe levels. In short, this unassuming bench top box has made a significant impact on the working enjoyment of the people who work near it.
Out of the mouths of babes
When problem solving, be sure to include your most junior staff since no one truly learns about a system until things go wrong. The robustness of modern instruments makes this a rare occurrence these days so never waste a training opportunity.
To be honest, they are the ones who ask the ‘stupid’ question that quite often reveals the answer. Bonus tip: encourage a ‘there are no stupid questions’ culture in your lab.
Buy cheap, buy twice
Don’t just blindly buy the cheapest. Find a good supplier and stick with them.
In my experience, any immediate savings are often lost in the long term through missed deadlines, short shelf life and, when things inevitably go wrong, longer than necessary downtime due to poor quality service.
Develop methods for tomorrow.
Develop methods that go beyond the immediate needs of today i.e. don’t hit the regulation today but aim for where you think it will be in 5 years as this will actually reduce the amount of method development required.
Bonus tip: Review your methods and the available technologies regularly, don’t stick to a method because you have always done it that way. You could be wasting hours of lab time.
Kathy Ridgway – Senior Applications Chemist
Remotely Connect to your lab.
Look after your system from home (well maybe not at weekends!) and save waiting once you’re at work. Being able to tune or vent before my commute means I can get to work as soon as I’ve had a cup of tea (don’t take hot drinks into the lab). Sometimes it means I can avoid coming into the lab completely!
Get your own tools
(Or at least extremely tidy draws). In the time I’ve spent looking for spanners/column cutters/ferrules etc, I could probably have studied for another couple of degrees by now.
Every Little (bit of Automation) Helps
In my experience ‘automation’ can be a bit of a nebulous term and those who are uninitiated can find it hard to imagine exactly where it fits in their workflow. But even simple automation can have help massively with efficiency.
Something as simple as adding an internal standard solution to your sample is not only quicker if automated, but has been shown to be more accurate and leaves the analyst free to do other tasks.
If you’re not doing so already, consider automating standard prep as well as sample preparation, extraction and injection. Optimise your data analysis method so it runs automatically and only needs a quick check.
Start off with a standard set up
When developing a new analytical method, use a standardised set up if at all possible. This will mean you don’t have to mess about changing hardware or installing different columns whenever you need to swap to a different analytical method. This makes it quick and easy to change from one method to another, eliminates large chunks of instrument down time and is a real boost to your productivity for the long term.
For sample preparation, a multifunctional sample preparation system can do a number of different sample preparation protocols, this means multiple methods can be run on one system without changing the hardware. Just load your samples and methods, and let the system do the rest. No need to reconfigure between projects.
Use Magnetic Labels.
Use a magnetic label to show instrument specific information (Instrument name, which liners, columns and methods it is using, due-date of next service etc.). You can write or edit the information neatly with the label flat on the bench before putting the label in place, showing the information clearly on the front of the instrument. This saves unnecessary faff in the lab. Who doesn’t hate faff?
Bonus tip: Buy a large pack of marker pens. They cost next to nothing and buying lots means you’ll never have to look far to find one when you need it.
Phine Banks, Implementation Manager
Plan shifts around your sample prep
Did you know that GERSTEL Maestro software can help with scheduling?
It gives information on timings for sample prep like when each batch of samples will be ready. This can help you plan who needs to be in the lab and at what time. This is especially useful if you’re experimenting with split shifts and social distancing.
Sample prep can continue with minimal presence in the lab allowing others to use the space (not to mention time) to work on other projects.
Dan Carrier – Applications Manager
Lab Book Goes Electric
Around December of last year I started encouraging my team to migrate their lab notebooks to a cloud based, sharable, electronic format.
Current circumstances have required us to be much more flexible across each other’s projects. Without access to each other’s detailed notes, we would have struggled to keep instrument utilisation so high during the lockdown. Also, if someone is sick you don’t just lose that person for the day, you usually lose someone else for half a day looking to find out exactly what they were doing.
Our notes are accessible to everyone in the business too which helps inter-departmental collaboration and project transparency.
Finally, it saves us a lot of time at the end of projects since we can simply copy and paste our notes into project reports. No more typing up what we’ve already written down once.
We use OneNote but there are plenty of options out there. Please get in touch if you want some advice on getting set up.
Julian Chan, Service Manager
Get serious with silly names
An oldie but a goodie. I’ve done PMs on Basil Fawlty, Walter White and Ned Flanders while managing to easily avoid accidentally servicing Maud, Sybil or Skyler. For more information on why this matters, click through to this old blog post: The Serious Benefits of Giving Instruments Silly Names
Ray Perkins, Anatune’s Founder
Are you running your GC-MS lab at the optimum temperature?
When your lab was full of people, you had to set the ambient temperature to suit your staff. If your team are now mostly working remotely, you are free to set the temperature to suit your instruments. This may well be cooler than is comfortable for humans. Why would that be?
In a cold lab, your GC-MSs will cool down more quickly and you should be able to get a few more samples run each day – and that will add up to a significant gain over the weeks and months. This will work especially well if you are analysing for volatiles, and your GC start temperature needs to be close to ambient.