Faster field service

15th December 2014

Posted By Paul Boughton

For simple error messages or maintenance work, laboratory staff on site can describe messages on the screen. But in more complicated conditions, remote network access is critical
The Growth Direct system from Rapid Micro Biosystems is an automated solution that offers greater flexibility to labs

David Jones explains why facilitating a rapid response with minimum downtime is the key to success for labs moving towards automated solutions.

Changes are under way in pharmaceutical microbiology quality control (QC) laboratories. These laboratories are the last bastion of QC assays that require a very high manual input to perform and complete. The development of automated technology to perform repetitive analytical tests has been on the increase and now affects many of the standard microbiology tests. With the introduction of instrumentation comes the need to ensure that the systems continue to run reliably without restricting the QC lab from releasing critical tests. As a result of this, companies are looking more closely to their vendors’ preventative maintenance (PM) contracts to ensure that the timing and commitments confirm continued reliable performance and any other innovations that will help maintain uptime.

An example of an automated technology is the Growth Direct system, which automates the tedious manual process of colony counting and data transfer to LIMS databases. Users of the Growth Direct system only need to prepare samples using the same methods currently employed. Once prepared, the samples are loaded into the automated instrument, which manages incubation, enumeration and reporting, alerting via email to any samples that are out of specification. This technology frees microbiology resources to perform higher value tasks and gives the lab flexibility in the execution of tests, potentially placing the instrument closer to manufacturing versus in the lab. 

In the event of a system issue with an automated technology, there are two key events that need to happen quickly to enable an efficient resolution and recovery of the system. Those events are:

*  Notification of the supplier service organisation. 

*  Transfer of suitable information on the issue such that the service engineers are fully aware of the specific issue and arrive with the correct repair resources.

Notification of the supplier is often performed by the user who arrives at work and at some stage looks at the system and sees that error messages or other warning signs that are on display. If staff do not frequent the area or have no coverage on weekends this can lead to long periods of downtime before the supplier is contacted. This can cause delays in the time to resolution. In that initial communication the engineer often needs information on the failure to enable a diagnosis. Because automated technologies can often utilise systems such as email, a preferred method of communication of the issue is for the system to access the email system and email the supplier service team with the pertinent error message for the issue. In this case, no staff are required and the service team can swing into action immediately.

Once informed, the next step is to determine the cause of the issue. Often, relevant information can be gleaned from laboratory staff on site, who can describe the state of the mechanisms or error messages on the screen. This method is useful for simple resolutions that can be performed by the on-site staff. For more complicated issues, however, the local information can be deceptive.

A more reliable approach involves the use of remote access that will allow the service engineer to interrogate the system error logs without having to travel to the site. With the complete data at his fingertips it is often possible for the engineer to correct an error from afar either with or without a local assistant near the unit.

Alternative access methods

Although a method of choice, remote access is often viewed with suspicion by the pharma companies’ IT departments. Alternative methods that have been utilised by Rapid Micro Biosystems to remotely diagnose issues include the following:

Through the use of third-party software, eg TeamViewer, the pharma company initiates a session at the instrument. The service engineers will connect to the session and control of the system is passed from the company to the engineers. Although this gives the pharma company more control over the remote session, it has the drawback that it needs the right people present to facilitate the connection and can delay access to the unit for repair or full diagnosis.

Access to the network is given through a technology such as Citrix that allows the engineer to log in and gain access to the critical log files on the system. This method allows for a faster diagnosis and possible cure of the issue. Any access to the system by this mode is tracked and can be audited if required. This access type also allows the service department to perform regular health checks on a system to check for any signs of a developing issue that could be caught prior to the event occurring.

In a typical service situation, following the remote access, if the system issue cannot be resolved immediately and a part needs replacing, the service engineer will be dispatched with the correct parts required for the repair. In general the engineer will take a pre-tested module with him to the client site so that the repair can be quickly made without having to gain access to the individual components. The replacement is followed by a test run to ensure all aspects of the system are functioning correctly.

As labs become more automated, the microbiology staff are freed to perform other activities, or to operate at lower resource levels. Having an automated technology provides tangible benefits. It is important, as part of the due diligence process, to clearly understand the automation providers capabilities to support their technology in the future. 

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David Jones is director of Technical Services, Rapid Micro Biosystems.





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