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Unleashing the hidden efficiency of your lab

Money for science is in short supply. Yet an untapped resource exists. These are the performance and financial benefits which are available from improvements in the efficiency of laboratories. The scope for change is illustrated by the 58 shortlisted applications for the 2014 S-Lab Awards.

The applications in the S-Lab Awards ‘new laboratory’ categories show how strategic vision, an integrated design approach and involvement by all stakeholders (including estates and technical staff) can foster world class inter-disciplinary research and its translation into practice, and yet still achieve value for money. For example, the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation’s Research Tower makes efficient use of a constrained site through a ‘pin wheel’ design with deep slots between four wings that bring light and views into central collaborative spaces. It also provides a striking recognition of the importance of laboratory users through the glass railings in its lobby, which are decorated with DNA sequences from 28 randomly selected employees. On a smaller scale, the University of Hull’s Allam Building houses advanced preclinical imaging equipment and links it physically and collaboratively to adjacent chemistry and bioscience buildings. A single team of scientists and clinicians also operates both the preclinical and clinical imaging at a nearby hospital. The result is a unique facility for development and testing of novel imaging agents.

Similar visions of collaborative working and fresh approaches are also informing new and refurbished teaching spaces. The University of Coventry’s Engineering and Computing Facility Building has consolidated staff from 10 sites with a key aim of the design being that students felt ownership of the building. This was achieved in part by contractors presenting to student representatives and to others such as Estates, and marketing the design to students through regular tours and other means. And the University of Hertfordshire’s Smart Systems Laboratory contains multiple sensors, devices and platforms to provide a ‘sandpit’ for staff and students to demonstrate and develop new ideas, often in collaboration with industry.

Innovative sensing and control is also transforming laboratory ventilation. The University of Cambridge’s MRC Hutcheson laboratory has introduced the UK’s first demand controlled ventilation system, operating at X air changes per hour in normal use but sensing VOC and other parameters every 30 minutes so that flows can be ramped up if any problems are detected. Similarly, the University of Southampton has installed the UK’s first wind responsive extract system which varies exhaust velocities in line with speed and direction. In combination with measures to reduce fume cupboard energy consumption, the project is said to have reduced energy use by 75% with a payback of under three years.

Of course, good laboratory design always pays great attention to ventilation and services, both because they account for a large proportion of capital and operating costs (e.g. 60% of total energy use in a typical chemical laboratory), and also because they can constrain adaptability over time. The MRC’s Laboratory for Molecular Biology has met this challenge through three full-height interstitial service voids, which house all the ductwork, pipes and services for the labs below. Whilst this added 10% to build cost, the MRC’s previous experience suggests that this will be recouped within a few years by less need to adapt plants to small spaces, and operating savings, with the further advantage of enhanced flexibility. Other laboratories achieve the same solution with other approaches, such as sidestitial areas.

Unleashing the hidden efficiency of your labS-Lab workshops are abound with anecdotes of science wastage in existing laboratories, such as £100,000+ instruments that have never been used, fume cupboards – which can cost well over £1,000 a year in energy costs alone – running constantly even though labs are unused at evenings or weekends, or freezers that run for years after a researcher leaves because no-one know what’s inside them (or feels responsible for their energy costs). Fortunately, many shortlisted applications highlight the potential to use resources more effectively. The University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute had sharing of space, equipment, cold storage and consumables as a key design objective, with researchers being allocated shelf space rather having their own freezers. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ran a Freezer Challenge to highlight best practices for freezer maintenance and management and saved over $127,000 a year in the process. UCL’s Chemistry department, and Queen’s University of Belfast’s School of Pharmacy, have introduced chemical and equipment inventories – respectively using free online software, and a system developed in house – to track use and achieve better utilisation.

Many such initiatives can create performance, safety and other benefits as well as reduce usage and costs. For example, the University of York-based Green Chemistry Network highlights the potential to minimise or eradicate the use of many dangerous chemicals out of laboratories through alternative syntheses. Their use in degree courses can also educate students about the importance of regulation and the value of a life cycle approach, and therefore help their employability. At a more day-to-day level, the University of Southampton has developed StarStream, an ultrasonic cleaning nozzle which can be attached to hoses or taps and dramatically increases the cleaning effectiveness of water, whilst reducing energy and water consumption for standard tasks by 80-90%.

Leaner and more hi-tech labs also require higher and more varied skills amongst technical support staff than in the past. This has been recognised by the University of Sheffield, whose Engineering Faculty has introduced a two year Professional Technician Trainee Programme, with members spending time in each of the Faculty’s seven departments, and in the parallel Faculty of Science, to develop competence in five key areas: Electronics; IT; Mechanical Work; Laboratory Work; and Personal Skills. At its end, they qualify for the new Registered Technician award from the Science Council. The University of Nottingham’s Technical Focus Group has also brought together 600+ technical staff from both the UK and the University’s China and Malaysia campuses to share experience, provide professional development opportunities, and provide a collective voice to input into decision-making.

It is clear that financial pressures, changing needs and other factors are requiring change in laboratories. The S-Lab awards demonstrate that many – though still not enough – users, designers and others are rising to this challenge, and that there is more scope to change their design, operation and management than seemed possible even a few years ago.

Key Features of Effective Laboratories

An effective laboratory is one which is highly productive with regard to its purpose; has high levels of safety and user health and satisfaction; and is lean in resource use. Presentations and discussions at S-Lab Conferences and workshops have identified the following assessment criteria:

• Laboratories are managed strategically, with larger ones having a senior management group that has an integrated perspective on laboratory operations because it contains both users and technical support staff.

• There are effective cross-functional and cross-laboratory connections so that experience and information is shared, and different stakeholders work effectively with each other.

• User performance and satisfaction is proactively monitored and processes are in place to express concerns and issues, and to respond to them effectively.

• Significant decisions, such as new build or refurbishment, or major equipment acquisition, have inputs from a variety of stakeholders, examine alternative options, and are ‘future proofed’ by considering how laboratory use could change. As a result, they are not dominated by special interests or views that may not be relevant in 5-10 years’ time.

• There is a well-integrated IT infrastructure and high levels of connectivity which allow staff to work flexibly and which support the achievement of the following goals.

• There are mechanisms in place which support continuous improvement of operations by collecting and reviewing relevant information, and bringing it to the attention of senior management.

• There is a high level of utilisation of space, equipment and other assets, supported by effective mechanisms to encourage ‘right sizing’ for tasks and sharing.

• The location, ownership and use of all chemicals, materials and samples is tracked, and the information is used to manage and use them efficiently, and to minimise pointless storage and wastage.

• Environment, health and safety are recognised as strategic issues which are considered at an early stage of decisions so that ‘win-win’ synergies with other aspects of laboratory operations can be identified.

• Users are aware of the costs of laboratory infrastructure and services, and the operation of the latter can be adjusted in response to variations in needs and use.

• Technical support staff have career development opportunities, and a career structure, which encourages them to broaden their skills and to gain experience of different working environments.

Peter James is Director of S-Lab, a not for profit initiative to support improved laboratory efficiency and effectiveness.

More information
The full shortlist – and details of S-Lab’s 2014 Conference on ‘Supporting World Class Science’, at King’s College on 2nd and 3rd September, can be obtained from www.effectivelab.org.uk.

One comment

  1. I want to highlight this article’s information about lab management because I think that’s one of the biggest things a lab can use to make their laboratory more efficient. Improving lab management has almost a trickle down effect which makes the rest of the lab more efficient due to improved leadership.



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