By Bernard Tulsi
Enveloped by current acute economic stringencies, administrators must strive even harder to reduce costs while boosting the productivity of their laboratories. To facilitate efficiency, managers traditionally tapped into four key equipment service schemes — in-house capabilities, service consolidators, outsourcing to independent service providers, and the OEM service model where the manufacturers service instruments. To be sure, each offers gains and setbacks.
The in-house model provides fast response time and flexibility but incurs higher costs and greater management time. With their actuarial tables, service consolidators can trim costs some 15% to 25% versus other models, but may have quality and convenience
shortcomings — linked to their thin operating margins. Outsourcing to independent service providers is the lowest cost option, but drawbacks may include limited competencies, weak QC, parts supplies, and operational capabilities that fall short of needs of large mission-critical laboratories. While the OEM service model offers high quality and low risk, it also brings higher costs, substantial administrative challenges, and longer response times.
Overcoming this requires ‘cherry picking’ and blending the best aspects of each model based on the needs of a specific lab. This has given rise to the integrated service delivery (ISD) model, which equipment maker Agilent Technologies reports is proving a boon to customers.
One year after adopting the ISD model, a chemical manufacturer and Agilent customer reported a drop in instrument downtime of 50%, with its chemists devoting far less time and effort on compliance, improving their record keeping and reducing time to market to near just-in-time levels. Other gains included 25% less time spent on system maintenance, a 26% reduction in unscheduled downtime of chromatography equipment, and a new ability to apply integrated life cycle management principles for ongoing improvement.
Improving Lab Operations With Automated Tools
The Colorado-based laboratory of Sandoz Inc., a producer of generic pharmaceuticals, is a current user of Agilent’s Remote Advisor, which includes Assist, Report, and Alert tools. The WebEx-like environment of Remote Advisor Assist facilitates an initial review of the status and issues of connected equipment. The direct link it provides to Agilent allows users to avoid call center queues and upload the details of their instruments once they ask for support. The tool’s Report feature helps eliminate time-intensive steps such as inventory tracking and management. It provides access to inventory lists and reports that spell out instrument configuration, availability, use, and real-time maintenance and qualification needs. The Alert feature informs both Agilent and the customer, via text or email message, when maintenance thresholds are reached or when an instrument or system shuts down unexpectedly. For example, if you can leave the lab on Friday night, and if it is important that you know on Saturday or Sunday morning whether your assays are still running, the Alert feature will take care of that.
Bryan Hunt, manager of laboratory operations at Sandoz Inc., oversees about 50 QC and 20 development chemists (among others) and some 200 validated pieces of equipment along with chromatography data and LIMS (laboratory information management systems), among other applications. “Remote Advisor provided a foundation for more effectively scheduling our equipment, and it helped make sure our analysts were not constrained from the system or instrumentation sides,” says Hunt. In addition, the tool eliminates the need for internal validation and qualification because it is hosted elsewhere and validated by the vendor. The Sandoz lab installed Remote Advisor in 2008 and currently has some 40 to 50 instruments (from multiple vendors) connected.
“On a daily basis it gives me a real-time look at how the laboratory is running, which is much better than the manual collection of retrospective data system we previously used,” he says. Hunt adds that the ability to collect data in real time is a big benefit to his staff because he can base all his capacity studies on the tool. It also indicates the appropriate inventory levels, which is important for justifying service contracts, depreciation, or other maintenance costs. “It helps us ensure we have an appropriate ratio of systems to handle the workload and also handle an appropriate scale-up if necessary,” Hunt says. “The tool also helps us ensure we are not buying expensive equipment all at once because that burdens qualification and validation as well as the budget. We can establish our life cycle so we are constantly either replacing or updating our equipment in a more controllable format.”
Scott Marshall, program manager for Remote Advisor at Agilent, explains that in the event of a failure, lab managers still require analysts to spend their time on analysis rather than trying to figure out what’s wrong with the instrument, how it was performing a few minutes prior to the failure, and what is its current configuration, among other issues.
“Using the Assist function of Remote Advisor, analysts with affected instruments can get the correct information to Agilent by simply pushing a button and entering their name and a description of the problem. In the background, Remote Advisor gathers all the necessary information and makes it available to Agilent. That way, when Agilent calls the customer regarding the problem, which could be 5 to 20 minutes later, the call is more about a resolution,” says Marshall.
Hunt concludes by explaining that tools like Remote Advisor can have additional benefits that may not be immediately apparent. “It helps me develop the metrics I need to present to senior management how we are using our systems and to justify expanded head count or inventory and to figure out how we can become more efficient.”