Why is manual storage a challenge for today’s laboratories?
Manual sample storage (in freezers, fridges, cryovials, ULT stores, and so on) is the backbone of most labs because:
- it is relatively cheap (sometimes inherited with the lab)
- it provides a variety of different storage conditions suited to specific sample types
- it may be required to securely lock away controlled substances, even in labs running automated stores
Picking and placing samples in and out of manual stores is a daily requirement in the biopharmaceutical industry.
The problem with manual storage and retrieval is that today’s demands on lab sample management are very exacting. Good laboratory practice aims to deliver high quality data which relies on accurate sample tracking; especially when a time-stamped audit trail is a regulatory requirement.
Manual stores do not automatically track sample movements, and do not have a user interface to display or update sample locations. These details have to be managed somewhere else, often in spreadsheets, but more reliably using sample management software or a laboratory information management system (LIMS). There are many reasons not to use a spreadsheet – see our blog here!
The difficulty is to bring together the manual storage and retrieval process with electronic inventory and audit trail. It is possible to have a PC next to a freezer so information can be read while at the store, but this is not practical for multiple freezers or other storage locations. Alternatively, operators can print information on sample locations to carry with them while they pick and place, but this is inefficient and quickly out of date.
The sample tracking challenges posed by manual storage are:
- Inventory updates are entered manually, which is time consuming and error prone
- Inventory updates are easy to overlook or bypass if the user is in a hurry
- Incorrect sample identification is common, causing potential unnecessary freeze/thaw cycles to samples and wasting time
- There is no validation of the locations that samples have been picked or placed to
- Inventory updates lag the actual event, so samples may have moved from their recorded location
- These methods are not suitable for fully audited environments which require operations to be time stamped
Automatically recording picking and placing from manual storage systems, so these actions are traceable and auditable, is a major unmet need for today’s drug discovery.
Why this matters to the lab scientist
It is because manual storage systems are such a ubiquitous and useful resource for holding different types of sample, that their traceability needs to be improved to match that of other lab systems. Otherwise they form a weak link in the chain of data integrity that laboratories are trying to build.
Lab scientists will see other benefits to having digital interface to manual storage:
- Automatic tracking using barcodes is quicker and more accurate than entering data manually
- Finding or replacing samples is faster if the operator can be guided straight to the next appropriate location
- Freezer doors are open for less time if you know exactly where to go for your sample
- Lab safety is improved if hazard warnings can be displayed when needed
- Operators may need to have their hands free to access some types of manual storage safely
Sample integrity as well as data integrity benefits from a digital interface. In its white paper, SPT Labtech discusses experiments which show significant sample warming from repeated opening of a freezer door over a 1 hour picking session . A picking order that directs users straight to exact sample locations and minimizes the amount of time doors need to be open reduces the drop in freezer temperature, improves sample integrity and is also more energy efficient.
How Lab of the Future technologies offer a solution
Updating information in real time has become part of our daily lives, both at work and socially. Think of checking into a venue by scanning a QR code on your smartphone, or ordering via a tablet. Real time updates can be delivered in the laboratory too, through smartphone mobile applications or augmented reality glasses. These ‘Lab of the Future’ technologies offer solutions to the problems of manual storage today.
Most people are now used to carrying a smartphone which is wi-fi enabled. Many of these also have scanning capabilities that can read barcodes and are commonly used in retail environments. With both (and a suitable application from your sample management software), smartphones can provide a mobile interface to your inventory which gives guidance, scans and verifies barcodes, and updates your audit trail in real time.
Using a smartphone application to interface with your manual storage provides the following efficiencies:
- Labware and location information is provided to users on the move
- Sample location changes are automatically confirmed and verified in real time
- Errors are reduced by avoiding manual data entry and confirming that the correct item is chosen
- Inventory updates are auditable as workflow status is constantly updated in real time
- Time spent picking and placing is reduced as users are guided straight to the correct manual stores, shelves and labware
- Sample storage criteria can be enforced by guiding user choices, for instance to the correct temperature storage for the sample
Augment your reality
A similarly mobile interface to manual storage can also be provided by Augmented Reality via smart glasses connected to your inventory.
As with mobile, this provides context-appropriate guidance for users, barcode verification, real time inventory updates and an audit trail. AR is better suited to larger picks than smartphone applications, especially for freezer farms or cryogenic stores where protective gloves are needed to handle samples. This is because interaction and confirmation can be carried out when hands are not free to hold a mobile device.
An AR interface offers some additional advantages over a smartphone, including:
- Users carry less and have both hands available to perform tasks
- Context sensitive information is displayed in front of the user’s eyes when it is needed
- Confirmation that the user has reached the correct store, shelf and sample is given hands free.
Bring legacy systems up to date
As the whole drug discovery screening cycle is data driven, catching and removing errors improves data quality and has huge cost and efficiency benefits across the many groups involved in it. Automatically recording the audit trail means that the data stewardship is even tighter.
Portable smartphone and AR applications connect automatic and traceable inventory updates with the physical storage and retrieval process. These mobile interfaces not only provide a simple and practical interface to manual stores, but finally make auditable updates possible. They offer a route to bring legacy systems up to the standards expected of a modern laboratory.
The biotech sector is likely to realise the biggest benefits from these technologies, because it tends to rely more heavily on manual freezers and standalone lab automation. A mobile interface is an easy way to bring the benefits of integration to these disparate processes, as well as improving data integrity, traceability and regulatory compliance.
 SPT Labtech white paper “Garbage in garbage out! Are your samples fit for purpose?”, Page 5 https://www.sptlabtech.com/resources