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Consultancy Update

August 08, 2019

Things have been quite quiet on the consultancy front. This is primarily because my main customer, Peak Analysis and Automation have become my employer for four days a week. That said, the consultancy is still active and I am available for projects. I am still working on some projects with the ALN group. This is primarily with Automated Technologies LTD regarding some innovative new instruments for life science (Pending funding acquisition). Watch this space as hopefully new announcements are on their way!!.. 

Distributor Pack has arrived

September 06, 2018

The distributor pack from Vale life sciences has arrived. I now have samples of Happy Cell media. Please contact me if you would like to test this novel media.

Distribution Agreement

August 11, 2018

We are delighted to announce that R Northwood Consultancy has agreed to become the first UK distributor of Vale Life Sciences products. Vale produce unique microplate designs that negate evaporation and edge effects in assays. They also produce nano slides using the same technology to enable ultra low volume biochemical and cell based screening. In addition to these products they produce the innovative Happy Cell media that holds cells in suspension within the media improving cell growth, morphology and enables spheroid formation without the need for scaffolds or unique plastic ware. For more information please contact me via the contacts page. 

Acquiring Laboratory Automation

August 08, 2018

Introduction

I see plenty of articles and webinars with helpful advice on acquiring the ideal laboratory instrument, LIMS, robot etc. The clear majority of these are published by vendors. Therefore, such articles tend to have a slant that emphasises their own products strengths and gloss over or ignore the weaknesses whilst totally ignoring alternative options from other vendors. Firstly, I am not against this. Companies have marketing challenges and a good 'how to' article is a great way to get a message out. As I go on with this article I might name drop some companies or products. This does not imply any association on my part with any companies mentioned and no promotion fees are being received.

 

Understanding what you mean regarding automation

The term 'automation' covers a vast array of opportunities to:

  • Improve processes

  • Increase capacity

  • Lower aligned resource

  • Increase out of hours productivity

  • Increase data quality

 and all the benefits that are recognised by automation implementation.

 

What is important is to have a clear mindset on what process or processes you want to automate. This should be data driven (Process analysis) and based upon real data. By real data I mean the direct testimony and metrics from the people performing the tasks.... not, I repeat NOT! A lone managers opinion of how a process is carried out. You have been warned, this is the very first point that causes problems in automation acquisition. It is essential to getting the correct system and getting user buy in.

 

Automation can be many things:

  • The step from a cuvette reader to a microplate reader for example.

  • Acquiring a bulk reagent dispenser (Thermo, Fritz Gyger, Formulatrix etc) to speed up and remove repetitive pipetting tasks.

  • Adding stacking systems to individual instruments to remove the need for manual feed.

  • Larger liquid handling workstations (Agilent, Tecan, Hamilton etc) for complex liquid handling.

  • Integrated systems coupling liquid handling, reagent dispensing and signal detection (HighRes, PAA, Brooks Life sciences, Labman etc.)

  • Informatics, automated data capture and processing, barcode tracking.

  • Automated sample storage and retrieval

From a small instrument implementation to large scale bespoke integrations.

 

Understanding resource capabilities

When making the first steps in Lab automation it is important that you analyse the skill set of your group. Do you have a 'tech savvy' member who can take a project on? Project management and delivery of an acquisition/implementation can be a very involved process when done properly. Consider losing at least 0.3 - 0.5 of an FTE to this process. Prioritisation is key. Remember that incorrect prioritisation can have drastic & long-term impacts upon the whole operation if it leads to mistakes. Not to mention a large capital outlay. If you are struggling to find a team member that fits the bill you can reach out to organisations such as the Automated Laboratory Network (or your friendly neighbourhood automation consultant). Plenty of suppliers offer scoping however not many will scope anything beyond the design and delivery of their own systems.

 

Scoping the solution and the dreaded URS! (User requirements specification)

This is often the hardest part of the process. Describing the solution. Once you have a machine that performs a task normally performed by a human it is important to review (in detail) the exact process that the human does. For example, pay attention to the little idiosyncrasies that lab operatives have (a tap down of a microplate here and there. Swirling a reagent bottle periodically. If ignored, these steps can be the difference between success and failure of an assay on automation.

Investigate the timings for process steps. Most automation systems are not faster than an individual user. A single robot arm installation, despite the cost still has one less arm than nearly all scientists. Imagine running your experiments using only one hand to get a feel for potential throughput limitations.

Also consider reagent storage and stability. A stacking system can run for hours, but can the reagent/assay stability support that length of time?

Challenge dogma - this can be difficult as scientist can almost become superstitious regarding their processes (Assay must be done on a Tuesday, cells grow better if you sing to them, that sort of thing). If a requirement seems over the top, perform a test.

A good URS does not need pages and pages of company description, background and context. Most suppliers will scan that at best. What is most important is:

  • A description of the problem/opportunity

  • Glossary of terms - to ensure that you are all using the correct interpretations of acronyms and requirements

  • Detailed description of the requirements

  • Process maps - Physical and data

  • A prioritised list of physical and data deliverables

  • A prioritised set of acceptance criteria

Fully understand the differences between Critical (Needs) versus Optional (Wants) versus Optimistic (nice to haves). Suppliers operating to a budget will always be faced with a balancing act as budgets are often under pressure. The more insight you can give to suppliers, the more harmonious and successful the project.

Remember that even if you are just considering buying an instrument there are often multiple vendors who can supply a solution. A good URS will help you to narrow down your choice of vendor. When analysed against a URS your original view of which product is best can often change. Also you can sometimes determine why a more costly solution gives you more of the nice to haves.

 

Enabling

Also, at this point ensure that scoping time is spent upon enabling activities, lab design, adjacencies and material flow. These can be costly but not fall in the remit of an automation vendor to remedy. Take the time to liaise with building/facilities managers. Automation takes up space and extensive lab modifications are often needed these can be:

  • Removal of benching

  • Moving other lab systems

  • Space for bulk plasticware storage

  • Lay down areas for associated processes (Plate loading, reagent prep, Unloading)

  • Addition of extra services (Water supply, Purified water, Data coms, Gasses, Compressed Air etc.)

  • Delivery routes for the system during on site build.

Also consider the existing lab processes that will not go on the automation. Are they affected?

 

Safety

As soon as a machine starts doing a person’s job a whole new raft of safety measures come in. CE standards and international safety standards are not always a given. Consider guarding and always ask for declarations of conformity. Also note that increases in throughput leads to increases in reagent volumes and waste so a review of COSHH assessments is essential. If in the UK, ensure that a PUWER assessment is carried out post-delivery. Once handed over ensure that a thorough risk assessment is also required. If your company has a health and safety adviser I would recommend that they sit on the project team.

 

Functional Specification (bespoke systems)

Vendors respond to a URS with a functional specification or sometimes called and SDS (System/Software design specification). The functional specification (FS/SDS) defines precisely what will be delivered by the vendor and it incumbent upon the customer to review this for compliance with the requirements laid out in the URS. If signed off the FS represents the contractual deliverables by the vendor. If requirements are changed post sign off this can represent a change in scope and will add to the project costs. Expect your negotiation skills to be pushed during this time and rigour during this stage of the project is essential in both getting exactly what you want and keeping costs on track.

 

Build Phase

This can be a quiet time for a customer and a mad time for a vendor. Avoid over reporting (vendor) and requesting too many progress updates (customer). Build timelines are normally quite precise with systems but issues can arise. A good vendor will notify you of issues in good time. I would suggest a weekly update and at least 1 site visit prior to the acceptance testing as getting an understanding of how a system is built can give good insight into its utilisation, maintenance and aid in future trouble shooting.

 

Acceptance Testing (bespoke systems)

There are two stages to acceptance testing in bespoke automation systems. Factory acceptance and Site acceptance. The factory acceptance stage is mostly to fundamentally confirm that the system meets the requirements laid out in the FS/SDS....not the URS as the URS is superseded by the FS/SDS at this point. If you spot issues relating to URS compliance during the SAT, then you are relying upon the vendors generosity to resolve or be prepared to spend more.  The factory acceptance test (FAT) generally focusses on physical and data handling processes without using biological or biochemical reagents. This is primarily due to limitations in chemical handling facilities in engineering areas. If liquid handling is fundamental to the process, consider simple dye/gravimetric testing rather than more complex methodologies. Remember that an integrator is not liable for the quality of output of the instruments integrated unless failures can be directly attributed to the integration. If free-issuing instruments for integration, ensure that quality testing has been done before supplying to ensure that performance has been baselined. Expect one and possibly two FAT visits and remember the more complex the system, the longer the FAT. Sometimes a pre-FAT visit can remove the need for more than one. Ensure that a reliability stress test is at least one of the tests. Some can be performed before the formal FAT with confirmation carried out at FAT as a good system will contain logs that can be reviewed.

 

After delivery a SAT should be carried out to confirm that the system has been delivered and constructed correctly.  A SAT is usually a repeat of the FAT but additional tests can be agreed to test functions that could not be tested at the workshop, an example of which is Data handling, which can be tested in connection with site systems rather than emulated environments so this can be challenging if not scoped accurately.

 

Documentation for the FAT and SAT is produced by the vendor although it is incumbent on the customer to review and ensure that the testing methods prove the testable statements in the FS/SDS.

Upon completion of the SAT the system is finally considered delivered and is handed over to the customer. 

 

Training

After reviewing the skills of your staff ensure that the automation has an 'owner' or responsible person. Ideally this is someone tech savvy who is close to the action and has been part of the project from its conception. This helps ensure that the owner is invested in its delivery and success. If there is reluctance to champion the system, then there is a danger it could become underutilised and under supported. Ensure that user training is accompanied by expert user training (for the owner) including fault diagnosis. This is an excellent development opportunity for a lab user but should not be considered a role that can be done 'in their spare time'. Dedicate at least 20% of their time for this role in the short term (1st year). Assays and processes run manually can require some modification when placed on automation. Usually because the acquisition of automation goes hand in glove with an increase in capacity. Therefore, consider reagent storage, stability, change in the fluid path for reagents (peristaltic pump vs pipette tip). These factors require support from the 'owner' to new users and processes coming to the system and can lead to negative opinions of the system and lower user buy-in. Early adopters of any new system go through a lot of effort validating a system and in regulated environments an OQ (Operational Qualification) process is often required that governs validation, training and roll out.

 

Following this guide will not guarantee success but hopefully will help avoid a few pitfalls. If you require more detailed help and support in your project, you are welcome to contact me via the contacts page.

The ALN has a new Core Member

June 09, 2018

As a founder member of the ALN (Automated Laboratory Network) R Northwood Consultancy is proud to welcome Sci-Telligent, owned and led by Justin Morley as a core partner. Sci-Telligent bring big data and informatics programming expertise to the network. A great addition!

The ALN has a new logo

June 09, 2018

After much debate the ALN (Automated Laboratory Network) has finally settled on a logo. Congratulations to Chris Baxter of Automated Technologies for submitting the winning entry.

Vale Life Science Partnership

May 15, 2018

It is with great pride and excitement that R Northwood Consultancy can announce an agreement in principal for collaboration with Vale Life Sciences. Australia and Ireland based Vale Life sciences are at the forefront of consumable innovations for cell culture and life sciences. They have a number of innovative products:

 

Happy Cell media - This media can revolutionize cell culture and 3-D culture as it holds a layer of cells in suspension enabling more natural morphology and spheroid formation. The buoyancy in the media can be easily removed for passaging, splitting and media changes

 

Innovative microplates - These are microplates with a unique gel impregnated in them that prevents evaporation and fully negates edge effects. Currently in 96 well format it can prevent evaporation of liquids in the nanolitre range and prevents edge effects leading to lower plate CV's in cell based assays

 

Nano slides - The phase lock technology has also been applied to high density Nano slides enabling ultra low volume cell culture (100nl).

 

For more information please get in touch via the contact page or click the image to visit the Vale Life Science website.

R Northwood Consultancy takes up tenancy at Alderley Park

March 20, 2018

We are delighted to announce that R Northwood Consultancy has joined many innovative organisations in taking a virtual tenancy at the MSP site, Alderley Park. This historic and state of the art science site has been at the centre of life science innovation for over 50 years. The virtual tenancy provides access to top quality office, lab space, meeting areas and direct access to over 40 companies.

Automated Laboratory Network Arrives at Alderley Park

February 28, 2018

As a founder member of the Automated Laboratory Network I am delighted to announce that we have officially arrived at Alderley Park and have access to its state of the art facilities. Click on the image or the button for more details.

Happy 2018

January 01, 2018

R Northwood Consultancy would like to wish all its clients and contacts (current and future) all the best for a healthy, innovative and prosperous 2018. I look forward to hearing from you in the New Year.

Merry Christmas from R Northwood Consultancy

December 23, 2017

I would like to extend my warmest wishes for an excellent Christmas and a healthy, innovative and successful New Year to all of my clients and collaborators. 2018 promises to be an exciting year and I hope to collaborate with you to deliver new scientific technical solutions.

R Northwood Consultancy Joins the ALN

December 01, 2017

I am delighted to announce that R Northwood Consultancy is joining the Automated Laboratory Network (ALN) as a founder member. The ALN is a cooperative and collaborative network comprising four local companies:

Pharmalytical Services Ltd (www.pharmalyticalserviceslimited.com)

Automated Technologies Ltd (www.automatedtechnologies.co.uk)

Turtonation (Website pending)

R Northwood Consultancy Ltd.

The formation of this network enables R Northwood Consultancy to access to over 75 years of experience in Analytical Sciences, Engineering, IT, Pharmaceutical development, Product development, Laboratory Automation, Instrumentation and technology. This also provides access to the state of the art facilities at Alderley Park and enables collective delivery of larger scale projects.

Click the image or the button for access to the fledgling website.

S-Lab Installations now provided by R Northwood Consultancy

November 17, 2017

This week I have received training in S-Lab robot installation. This is an exciting new product that can automate simple laboratory processes in minutes allowing walk-away automation at a reasonable price. Ideal for microplate handling in all laboratories. R Northwood Consultancy will be assisting in the roll-out of these exciting systems. For a video of the system click on the image and try the button to get more info.

For fun - My homage to the Multidrop

November 07, 2017

As a Lab automation and instrumentation user of nearly 30 years I would like to give a shout out to one of the unsung heroes of the lab instrument world. The multidrop. A lot of people might sneer at my choice of machine to enthuse over but I would liken its impact on life sciences to a few breakthrough inventions/designs that are far more famous.

 

To me, the multidrop is the VW beetle, the Austin Mini of the science world. A system that is often derided as too simple or obvious to do a job or have value in a laboratory. If you enter any big pharma basement or equipment store you will find a few dusty original systems. These have been kept, begrudgingly because the owners know that without any fuss they could take it out, give it a good clean and be 99% certain that the little system will do a good job.

 

Originally a 96 well only machine which I first saw in the early 90s. At the time we were using Quadra 96 systems for our liquid handlers of choice. To switch from a 96 pipettor taking 2 minutes to dispensing from an 8 channel peristaltic pump in 20 seconds was amazing. This enabled throughputs to go from 1300 samples per day to 10,000 samples per day almost overnight.

 

Soon our labs were filled with rows and rows of multidrops, all lined up with scientists, almost reduced to check out staff at a supermarket passing microplates from one to the other. Soon after a 384 well version and later the Combi was brought out and the throughputs sky rocketed to 100,000 samples per day and beyond. The pressure to supply samples and handle the vast amounts of data (at the time) spurred sample handling and informatics to new heights and pushed technological boundaries.

Then it was not scientists moving the plates but robots, RTS, Velocity 11, PAA, Thermo, Zymark. Every automation manufacturer was shoe horning these little systems in various ways and rightly so. Stopping the mind numbing waste of scientists everywhere who were getting sick of the sight of these plucky little dispensers.

 

Some pretenders to the crown came in the shape of the Wellmate, which was virtually killed off by Thermo taking over both Matrix and Labsystems. Internally I can imagine that there would only be one winner. In more recent years the movement into lower volume liquid handling in the nanolitre scale has moved the multidrop out of the cutting edge and while the Multidrop Nano was designed to combat this, other systems have overtaken it. Which is no bad thing because progress is always positive. That said many companies are enviously eyeing the massive sales of multidrop cassettes that we all loath paying for.

 

In the future, I can see no place sadly for the multidrop in the ultra high throughput, ultra low volume liquid handling sectors, where ultrasonics have replaced peristaltic pumps and pistons for moving liquids and chips have replaced microplates.  However, that's not to say that there is an imminent demise pending for the stalwart dispenser.

 

In time I hope that the Multidrop will be looked on like the original Austin Mini or the VW beetle. With scientists fondly being grateful for what it enabled them to do. Right now though there are still too many around for them to be missed and while their simplicity and efficiency are no longer to be in awe of, they represent an excellent example of the simplest solution being the best.

What's this item about? What makes it interesting? Write a catchy description to grab your audience's attention...

R Northwood Consultancy heads off to Lab Innovations 2017, NEC

November 01, 2017

This is an annual exhibition that gathers laboratory equipment, instrument and consumables suppliers with lab users from all areas of research. Unlike other shows/conferences which are life science focussed this exhibition covers every and any research area. Highlights for me were:

  • The wide range of informatics solutions providers that are available. There are solutions for every type of lab and workflow with each supplier citing different strengths. This can lead to difficulties in deciding upon the ideal solution for your lab. R Northwood Consultancy can impartially help with finding the right supplier and helping to scope the requirements for your facility.

  • Eppendorfs simple user interface and utilisation of modified hand held pipettes in their automation bridges the gap between a user transitioning from hand held processes to automation. This is a useful feature. If positive displacement pipetting could be added to their range this would be a far wider reaching system.

  • Wildcat Hedgehog 96 - This is a nifty little tube sorter that would be a very useful addition to bio banking facilities and compound management centres. It can pick and place tubes from one rack to another. A simple and neat solution to a repetitive manual handling task that plagues many a lab operative.

  • Bronkhorst ES-Flow - This is a very neat ultrasonic flow meter that can be easily linked to a pump and could be incorporated into automation. This could be an excellent alternative to syringe drives and peristaltic pumps that are currently used.

  • HMS - HMS are a great contact for those organisation looking to get into the 'internet of things'. They also supply internal interfaces for control cabinets. This was their first time at Lab Innovations and they have a great potential to supply solutions for the more technical minded scientists among us.

More to follow when my information pack comes back from the event organisers.

R Northwood Consultancy Website is live

October 16, 2017

The new website for R Northwood Consultancy is now live. Please contact me for how I can improve your laboratory processes.

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