Increase Efficiency to Accelerate Your Discoveries
Figure 1. The Kanban method for managing R&D Protein Biology reagent inventory at the Thermo Fisher Scientific facility in Rockford, Illinois (Panel A). This Kanban card contains information about the reagent’s location, storage temperature, vendor, ordering number and when it needs to be replenished based on typical lab usage (Panel B).
At some point, every scientific research lab must consider ways to be more efficient. Greater lab efficiency equals more experiments, more discoveries, more published papers and, ultimately, more funding for your research. When considering ways to increase efficiency, many researchers immediately consider which steps and processes can be automated. But, there are many ways to increase efficiency, from low-cost solutions involving lab organization to big-ticket purchases such as fully automated instrumentation.
An effective organization method that can be implemented in a lab is the 5S methodology. 5S was first developed in Japan as a way to increase productivity during automobile manufacturing. The five primary phases of 5S are sorting, straightening, systematic cleaning, standardizing and sustaining. Various degrees of 5S can be implemented, depending on the size and goals of a lab. A 5S program can involve an entire process overhaul that requires the training of researchers and support staff and a concerted effort to implement and sustain the program. Alternately, a simple organization method for restocking commonly used reagents can be used to minimize waste.
The Protein Biology R&D department at the Thermo Fisher Scientific* facility in Rockford, Illinois, uses the Kanban method to ensure that commonly used reagents and supplies remain stocked and available when needed. The Kanban method uses a card to signal the depletion of a specific supply so that it can be replenished. For example, when a scientist needs to stain a gel and obtains the reagent from the supply shelf, they might encounter a Kanban card that they would remove and place in an area that signals the lab manager to reorder (Figure 1). This system ensures that there is always an adequate supply of materials to perform the necessary research. Otherwise, if the supply were unavailable, the researcher would have to inform someone to order it, and the planned experiment would be delayed.
Furthermore, the product testing department set up a reagent checkout system that greatly reduced waste. When a scientist retrieves a reagent from the cold room, that scientist places their designated color dot next to the reagent number on a white board. Then, if someone else needs that reagent they can find the scientist who has it, instead of assuming that reordering is needed. This system eliminated needless reordering or retrieving a new bottle from inventory.
An often overlooked aspect of lab efficiency is the accessibility of operation manuals and protocols. Especially in labs where personnel turnover is high, documents that support the lab’s operations must be kept up to date and well organized. There are free online tools that can help you organize documents (e.g., sites.google.com and quartzy.com). Furthermore, some online tools can help you manage inventory, orders and sign-ups for shared lab equipment in addition to maintaining personal and lab protocols. Standardizing documentation saves time and can increase the quality and consistency of experiments.
Once your lab is organized, the processes of specific research tasks and their efficiency should be regularly evaluated. What new tools are available to help you bypass time-consuming steps like purifying and incubating? Which steps are repeated often and can be streamlined with automation? Automated instruments range from compact, bench-top units (Figure 2) and workstations to highly sophisticated systems (Figure 3). It may seem that automation is too expensive, but depending on your lab’s direction and growth, it might be worth the expense. Labor-intensive workflows use up your most valuable asset – your research scientists. Furthermore, having automated systems close at hand might inspire creative ways to approach your research.
Finally, a lab may consider outsourcing, which is the practice of employing another lab, facility or institution to perform a task. You might decide to outsource because your lab does not possess the equipment or expertise to perform a particular procedure or analysis. Or, you might decide that outsourcing will reduce costs or accelerate progress. There are many factors to consider before pursuing outsourcing. For example, can the receiving lab perform the work to your satisfaction, meeting your quality needs, timing and costs? The return on investment must be carefully evaluated.
Figure 2. The Thermo Scientific* Wellwash Versa is an easy-to-use microplate washer for 96- or 384-well plates.
Figure 3. The Thermo Scientific Orbitor* BenchTrak* is a complete modular and customizable automation solution that can be used for sample preparation, ELISA, nucleic-acid and protein purification, cell or biochemical assays, cell maintenance, qPCR and next-generation sequencing.
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