Since I started at Paramet just over one year ago, I have had a great deal of exposure to laboratory automation. Specifically, I have helped maintain and develop a laboratory information management system (LIMS) project. While I'm sure I still have a lot to learn, I wanted to write about my experiences in laboratory automation in relation to HVAC products so far.
What is Laboratory Automation?
HVAC laboratory tests take measurements from an array of devices. Performance tests measure aerodynamic properties, electrical properties and more. With all of these data streaming in, how can it be accurately recorded in discrete samples to end up as reliable information which indicates how effectively the product fulfills a given purpose?
Laboratory automation is a combination of software and equipment which reduces human interaction and interference. It typically reduces more repetitive aspects of experiments, such as data entry. When these tasks, which are prone to human-error, are automated; greater reliability is guaranteed.
Advantages of Laboratory Automation
More reliable results
Laboratory tests can be complex, involving multiple control variables and steps. An aerodynamic test for a HVAC system will often control for ambient air conditions, atmospheric pressure, etc while the independent variable is changed throughout the course of the test.
Even if the automation is only partial, requiring some user input, the system can guide the technician through the test to ensure that all controls are captured and even provide targets for the independent variable.
With a guided process, automated recordings and calculations, data is much more likely to be reliable than when having a test conducted by technicians alone with more room for human-error in data capture and process steps.
Maximise generated data
I've mentioned how software can greatly aid collecting sample data, which enables data to be recorded and compiled more efficiently than when recorded manually, especially when recording numerous variables such as air speed, pressure, voltage, amperage and power at once. Collecting more data becomes easier.
Further, calculations on these data can also be performed automatically to produce useful information about the product for you, your customers and distibutors.
While samples collected into spreadsheets may suffice for some of these functions on a small scale, it will eventually become impossible to manage at scale. For example, changes to calculations would be very difficult retrofit to old sample sets.
Safer working conditions
Laboratory automation can be used to reduce risks during tests. Limits can be set in the software to either show warnings or automatically shut down the test when limits are breached.
Such features make tests safer for technicians and prevents damage to equipment.
Save time and money
Admittedly, such software is a considerable investment. However, it does provide returns and pays for itself.
A well-designed, user-friendly lab automation system will require minimal user training. This means specialists are not required to perform trivial tasks in laboratory tests and can focus on more intricate tasks, as well as supervision and analysis.
Laboratory Information Management Systems
As I mentioned earlier, I have been working on a LIMS project; so I want to expand on this subject. This class of software system aims to aid laboratory operations and can range from simple sample tracking to enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
Here are some common features of LIMS applications:
A HVAC business, especially a large one, will have many products which require testing to show effectiveness and efficiency for particular applications. These products may be tested many times with multiple prototypes, each potentially with hundreds of sample points.
For a small business, it may be sufficient to have simple programs perform tests and export data to spreadsheets. At large scale, this becomes impossible to manage. Each test may be written in different formats; there needs to be a standard.
A LIMS will store product tests in a standard format and can be searchable. It's an organised repository for your product tests. Given the amount of data collated in HVAC tests, even basic sample collection and management can be a highly beneficial feature.
This somewhat relates to the previous point in that the workflow controls the requirements for data entry. Recording control variables, such as temperature, can be made mandatory where it may potentially be forgotten. However, it goes further than this already huge benefit.
A standardised workflow means standardised business knowledge and training. There becomes only one way to perform and record a particular type of test and therefore one way to train new technicians. Technicians can focus on the product and its results; not how they're stored.
Simplified Electronic Data Exchange
Combining the two above features, you're left with a cohesive and consistent repository of product test data. When it comes time to select products to launch and publish performance data for your customers and distributors to use, you have a standardised format in one place.
The data stored in a LIMS can very easily be involved in such processes. Once ready, the information can be copied to your sales-oriented product selector site, or made accessible to distributors, as part of a partially automated process.
Hopefully this overview has provided useful insight for you in this particular application of lab automation. If it sounds like it could fit your business needs, feel free to reach out to us.