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Increase your lab efficiency for better, more economical results
Maximising efficiency in your lab should be a priority to ensure quality results, a large output and continued funding. Putting in place the right process, resources and people management will help when trying to increase scientific value and staff well-being while minimising wasted time and energy.
Here's a 7 step guide to help you improve your lab efficiency without taking shortcuts that reduce quality.
1. Human resources
Having the right people in the right roles is necessary for maximum effectiveness in all workplaces. Everyone needs to know the scope of their roles and have the education and experience to carry them out without too much additional learning. However, it is also important that they continue to learn and gain experience and remain motivated to achieve their goals.
The leadership in the lab needs to make sure that the staff have everything required to carry out their roles and preserve high levels of morale. They will also need to maintain the cohesiveness of the team and good communication between lab members. Read more advice about how best to manage a lab here.
2. Equipment optimisation
Having the best possible equipment in the lab will help to increase productivity and experimental quality while limiting waste.
Equipment should always be maintained as instructed by the manufacturer and kept in a clean, fully working condition. By doing this, you should stop it from breaking down during an experiment and wasting samples and other consumables.
Place fixed equipment in such a position that it doesn’t require too much space, is easy to set up and use, and all other items needed for the experiment are easily accessible.
It’s also worth noting that buying the cheapest available equipment may end up being more expensive in the long run while limiting the quality of your output. If an item breaks and takes a long time to replace this could severely hamper your experiments, costing you valuable time and energy.
3. Upgrade from paper
The advantages of digitising your lab are extensive, but a few reasons include:
- Having all notes in an indexed format
- Saving time finding information already written down
- Enhancing sharing, collaboration and innovative ideas
- Reducing waste paper and storage space
- Plan ahead
- Ask for help
- Record everything
Therefore, going paperless will save you time and effort. It may also promote staff well-being and improve the scientific output of the lab.
4. Get advice from your peers
One of the best ways to optimise your labs workflows and experimental protocols is to ask those with more experience.
You may well be doing cutting edge science, but for a lot of procedures you will not be the first in the world to use them. The majority of new experimental protocols are derivations of previous work. It will be necessary to tune the protocols to your particular experiments, but it is also likely that someone will be able to give you some advice on how to do it.
One online portal, with 8 million participating researchers is ResearchGate. On this network you can find relevant papers, ask questions and advice and look up researchers working in similar areas to you.
5. Workspace organisation
When deciding where to start when organising your workspace you need to consider what you are going to be doing in the space and where is best to place unmovable equipment, frequently used tools, solutions, samples, storage and waste.
All fixed equipment should be set up in the most convenient place to use it, without taking up too much lab space. Also, consider how you may need to maintain and clean these items when choosing their location.
Electronics and solutions don’t tend to play nicely with each other, so these need to be separated by an appropriate barrier to avoid any damage.
Frequently used utensils like pipettes, forceps and tweezers should all be on hand. If you’re right-handed, keep them on your right and vice-versa.
Solutions may need to be made fresh for each experiment, or it may be okay to use one made up well in advance. To avoid waste, make sure you have all the solutions necessary in advance and have the equipment to make fresh solutions ready.
Non-perishable items, like glassware and Falcon tubes, should be kept well out of the way, but they should be easy to get to if they are needed. Perishable items may need to be placed in a fridge or freezer, but in a convenient location so that you can reach them quickly.
All waste needs to be dealt with appropriately. If you are using biological samples, you will require a biohazard bag to dispose of them. You may also need a sharps bin and a toxic waste disposal system.
6. Enhance your stock control
Creating the perfect inventory management system is a science of its own. It should produce no waste, ensure a constant supply of necessary items and not require vast amounts of storage.
There are many different systems available to manage stock levels. Finding the right one for your lab will mainly be a matter of what works for you and a bit of trial and error. There is plenty of advice online about stock and inventory management and asking your colleagues how they do it will also be an excellent resource.
One of the biggest problems is with perishable items. You need to make sure you have these items available when required without having too much in stock that you end up having to throw it away.
To enhance stock management in general you could join up with other labs (particularly if you share the same space or building). This should enable you to buy in bulk, potentially saving money, and spreading the burden of stock management over the whole group.
7. Write everything down (in detail) – but not on paper!
Making a note of everything that happens in the lab, while seeming like a pain at the time, will be useful in the long run, particularly if you do it in a standardised way.
Write down all of the protocols in excruciating detail, so that any member of your lab could look at it and know exactly how to carry out that procedure. These documents will also help with the delegation of tasks (especially day to day items that lab members can spread among themselves).
Record all reagents, samples, timings and results in an organised and readable fashion. You may want to come back to these findings in a year’s time, and will still be able to interpret them.
If something works particularly well, write it down. You will be able to use this information to carry out the same task more efficiently in the future.
If something doesn’t work, write it down. You will be able to use this information to ensure you don’t create the same problem in the future.
Everyone in the lab should be able to get hold of this information, as well as instructions on how to use and maintain all of the lab’s equipment.
All of these seven points boil down to a few essential tips:
- Plan ahead
- Ask for help
- Record everything
Use these tips and the points above to get the most out of your lab's time and energy and improve your scientific value.