Lab monitoring is an excellent way to protect some of the most valuable assets of the lab, including instruments, equipment, and unique samples. A good example of the power of effective lab monitoring is the use of a temperature sensor to alert the lab manager that an ultracold freezer was no longer at the required temperature. The alarm notice was received at 11 PM on a Friday evening. Upon returning to the lab, she found that the freezer door was not latched properly. Apparently, icing had popped the door after the last usage, somewhere around 5 PM, as the last staff finished up for the week. The sensor alarm saved the high-value, non-replaceable samples.
Yet, this story could have an even better solution. An active monitoring service with a latch sensor would have recognized the lid latch issue immediately and notified staff before they left the facility.
Successful science work depends on many factors, including skilled scientists, properly working equipment, and a consistent environment. Lab monitoring processes are implemented to ensure the skilled scientists have working equipment and the needed environment to conduct their science.
Different processes to monitor
Modern lab monitoring rests on a variety of sensors that can be programmed to detect a range of changes that impact the quality of the science practiced in the lab. Environmental monitors use sensors to detect changes in temperature, pressure, environmental gases (like oxygen, carbon dioxide, or nitrogen), particles, volatile chemicals, or relative humidity. Changes in any of these may compromise samples, or waste staff time by requiring important work to be repeated under the desired conditions.
Some of this environmental monitoring also serves to protect the safety of the lab staff. To ensure safety, some labs need to monitor:
- Oxygen levels, especially with the use of cryogens
- Toxic chemicals, like carbon monoxide
- Flammable and explosive hazards, like hydrogen or methane
Sensors are also important to monitor the lab’s infrastructure, including instrument performance, power failures, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) issues. When undetected, any of these issues can create expensive problems for labs. The loss of important and unique samples due to refrigerator and freezer failures can range from the disruption of important research and development programs to the loss of a billion-dollar drug development activity.
Approaches to lab monitoring
The simplest approach to lab monitoring is manual written documentation. This is an inexpensive, do-it-yourself approach. This might occur when a lab technician records the temperature in a lab refrigerator as part of a daily quality check on the performance of refrigerators and freezers. These data can be very important to detect trends in the temperature control and to satisfy the requirements of the lab’s quality management system (QMS). However, this approach provides no safety net for a failure of the refrigerator. It will simply be discovered at the next check, and important samples could be compromised.
Data loggers provide an improvement to manual lab monitoring methods. These devices are relatively low cost, and most labs have the technical skills to implement them. The data loggers will monitor the sensors without needing human assistance. The challenges of using data loggers are that they record relatively few data points, need to be calibrated, and provide only simple alerting. The initial example about the freezer failure used a data logger connected to an alerting software. The alerting software is often limited to contacting only a few people and can’t improvise if those people are unavailable.
Building management systems include lab monitoring processes. These are integrated systems that control multiple sensors and provide better alerting capabilities. In general, these systems are focused on the whole facility and sufficiently address infrastructure issues like power, HVAC, and environmental controls. However, they are often purpose-built systems and can be rigid and hard to modify as the lab evolves. In addition, they are intended to control the lab systems, which is good for the facility manager, but can create issues with regards to compliance to the quality system.
Full environmental monitoring provides a more flexible approach to lab monitoring. These are comprehensive systems that involve multiple sensors, flexible alerting, and active support provided by a vendor. The challenges of these large systems are their initial cost, a complex implementation, and are usually limited to the sensors and applications provided by the vendor.
An active monitoring service combines the best of the other alerting processes. These vendors provide software and services that can integrate multiple sensors from different vendors, a dynamic alerting service, and updates as the technology evolves. While these systems can be initiated with a lower cost than a building management system, they do have an ongoing monthly service cost that becomes part of the operational costs of the lab.
Common monitoring issues to consider
The different lab monitoring options come with very different costs, both capital and operational. Match the solution to the value of the problem. The more costly the failure, the more justified the investment in lab monitoring.
Each system brings benefits and limitations. Understand the key items requiring monitoring and think through the failure modes. Choose systems that increase the probability that the failure modes most likely in your lab are covered by the system.
Ensure the lab monitoring system is fully consistent with the lab’s QMS. Systems are available that can be fully validated, provide reports for audits, and can be calibrated with fully traceable equipment.
Each lab presents different challenges for lab monitoring. Consider if your lab requires a system that can operate across multiple sites, requires different systems for different portions of the lab, and if the lab is likely to move.
Other considerations would include how much training is required for the lab staff, how the staff will respond to alarms and alarm fatigue, and the need for analytics in how the lab operates.
Active lab monitoring provides a wide range of benefits. Perhaps the most important benefit is to contribute to the safety systems of the lab protecting the staff. Other benefits include protecting the lab’s assets, ensuring the opportunity to generate quality science, improving compliance with the QMS, and protecting the time of lab staff by avoiding rework. After safety, the next most important benefit of an active lab monitoring system is easing the worries of the lab manager. Having confidence in lab monitoring allows the lab manager to think about other challenges, and to sleep well at night.