Magazine Article | February 1, 2016

How Lab Improvements Can Drive Productivity

Source: Life Science Leader

By Bill McMahon, president, laboratory equipment, Thermo Fisher Scientific

Today’s laboratory managers are facing significant budget cuts while simultaneously being challenged to obtain faster results. These pressures have created an increased focus on identifying potential areas of lab productivity improvement. Lab managers are now more frequently looking for faster equipment, better storage capacity, and the ability of bench scientists to work on multiple instruments without having to stand in front of each one. When faced with these kinds of challenges, a complete process view of how the lab equipment is utilized, including staffing levels and space constraints, can be extremely beneficial.

Upon reviewing lab processes, it will likely come to light that bench scientists often face inefficiencies that they have adapted to and learned to work around. For example, the location of on/off switches or the height of handles can affect efficiencies; lab personnel have been observed retrieving a step stool or fashioning a homemade tool to reach a “hidden” switch. Examples such as these are often perceived as minor, but they are, in fact, extremely important to enhancing productivity. Lab managers and bench workers have, therefore, been working more closely with equipment manufacturers, allowing them to observe such daily practices. In doing so, the manufacturers better understand the scientists’ pain points. Challenges can then be addressed through equipment that incorporates design elements such as a simple, one-touch lid opening for a centrifuge, or a highly visible green light indicating a correct temperature for an incubator. Features such as these will save valuable minutes to the scientist; this time adds up each day.

Space constraints within the lab also mean that location and size of equipment on the bench are considerations the lab manager needs to acknowledge when making purchasing decisions. Often, having a fresh set of eyes — perhaps from a different department or an outside partner or manufacturer — focused just on increasing productivity and implementing smarter working practices can prove valuable during this lab environment evaluation.

Any lab manager will cite safety as their top priority, and rightly so. But safety should not be at the expense of productivity. As new equipment is developed based on the observed pain points within laboratories, then maintaining reliable uptimes will naturally be achieved while providing a safer working environment. For example, some new lab equipment has lids and latches that do not open while a machine is in use, providing a safe environment for both the samples and lab personnel. Add an indicator light when the equipment is off, and a scientist is both safe and efficient. And lighter-weight doors and shelves can reduce physical stress and injuries while also enabling faster movement of samples.

Consider the impact of rough corners or edges on equipment, or the repetitive operations performed by scientists. Identifying equipment that can circumvent these kinds of issues can result in safer and more efficient operations and less downtime from injuries or unnecessary inconveniences, such as getting a garment stuck on an edge. Also, instruments that can self-monitor or that incorporate service indicators can ensure that everything in the lab is maintained to operate at its safest and most efficient level. Some examples include triggers related to the number of spins in a centrifuge, freezer door openings, or hours of equipment usage. Utilizing equipment with remote monitoring capabilities is another way lab managers can maximize productivity. Such capabilities allow bench users to track sample progress and quickly identify instruments not currently in use, without being in front of the instrument itself.

The lab manager’s goal should be to assess the entire lab workflow and identify areas that could benefit from equipment with, for example, smaller footprints and larger capacities to address space needs. Lighter-weight machines with more intuitive user interfaces will ensure easy movement and engagement. Remember, time, space, and utility are key drivers of productivity, and tomorrow’s product R&D departments will constantly assess and refine these metrics.