Even as energy prices fall globally, for labs serving this industry, the show must go on. Consolidation, layoffs and belt-tightening are indeed stark realities, but seasoned energy executives know that now is hardly the time for complacency. In fact, this may be an ideal time to look inward for gaps across the enterprise that could derail exploration, production and distribution, especially as activity ramps up in the future, which, despite how it looks now, is inevitable.
In a laboratory especially, gaps have a way of hiding in plain sight as small, everyday problems. It’s not uncommon for labs in the energy industry to manage tens of thousands of transmitted measurements, everything from well content, volume, emissions and equipment status to soil sample data for upstream LNG exploration. All these data must be collected, stored, analyzed, packaged and repackaged, and even the smallest error has far-reaching implications. Failure to process a single sample according to standard operating procedures (SOPs) could lead to stranded investment or compliance penalty, neither of which is trivial.
The pressure is always on labs in the energy industry to achieve higher levels of productivity and efficiency, even when the industry is contracting. But industry executives are undoubtedly looking even more closely at operations now, scanning for little things that could make a difference in near-term profitability and prepare the business for longer-term success. So, it follows, labs would be wise to take stock of the little things that impact their productivity. To that end, we’ve identified some issues that often hide in plain sight, but that, if addressed, could make your lab more productive, efficient and compliant immediately.
Poor inventory management
Expediting shipments of out-of-stock consumables to a lab — perhaps overpaying as a result — is a symptom of laboratory mismanagement. Some call it “hot-shotting.” Since most energy industry labs run the same test over and over and with a certain cadence, inventory should be fairly predictable. The inability to anticipate future need is clearly an efficiency problem that stems from lack of visibility.
Tracking what has been used, when and by whom, is yet another critical, but often-ignored, step. Gas chromatography (GC) vials are a great example. Since these are in such high demand, lab technicians often hoard them, and this can have downstream impacts on another technician’s work, affecting productivity. The second technician, suddenly short of vials, will likely hot-shot them to minimize disruption. Neither outcome is good – one potentially disrupts production, the other effects overall margins.
The obvious answer is better budgeting and tracking, and this is where a laboratory information management system (LIMS) is highly effective. While it’s not easy to manage inventory — even with software — spreadsheets are simply not dynamic enough to establish an inventory management system that supports proactive planning/budgeting and up-to-the-minute accuracy. With Thermo Scientific SampleManager LIMS, for example, labs can carefully track inventory as part of a comprehensive lab management program.
Better budgeting and tracking is an obvious remedy for inventory mismanagement. A laboratory information management system (LIMS) can enable labs to carefully track inventory as part of a comprehensive lab management program. It’s even possible to create alerts about stock levels. The bottom line is that there IS a bottom line: manage it better, and you’ll not only avoid waste, you’ll avoid costly production delays that poorly position the lab within the overall enterprise.
Inability to recognize analytical trends
Laboratory errors can be an early warning system. While many labs address errors after the fact, smart labs focus on predicting and preventing errors that mask QA/QC problems. But with analysts running hundreds of tests each week — many still using paper spreadsheets — this can be nearly impossible.
Today, more and more labs are turning to statistical quality control (SQC). SampleManager LIMS, for example, includes this capability, enabling technicians to detect nonconformance trending before it reaches pre-defined thresholds. This gives labs real-time monitoring capability that relies on statistical algorithms: the lab is observing data trends WHILE the analysis is running, not weeks later.
One missed error can cost thousands or more in lost productivity, consumable waste and, much worse, batch issues that lead to loading delays and costly demurrage charges. Identifying minor errors as they occur — because a LIMS-enabled SOP requires you to spot check data at certain intervals — can mean the difference between profit and loss. And human beings alone simply cannot provide this analytical rigor.
Laboratories are at risk from inconsistent application of procedures, even “innovative work-arounds” that show promise as time-savers. There is only room for innovation in a lab if, and only if, it passes through the rigor of the SOP process.
Electronic SOPs (ESOPs) are the lab’s defense against risk and the inevitable productivity declines that result from inconsistent procedures. With ESOPs defined in SampleManager LIMS, for example, there’s a rigid workflow with clearly defined technical corrective actions to ensure consistency and adherence to protocol. Without this, it’s too easy to make unintended errors.
Four considerations are important when developing ESOPs: thoroughness, standardization, distribution and compliance. Lab performance, defensibility and so much more depend on how successfully a lab addresses each of these imperatives. Fortunately, LIMS have evolved to make management of SOPs easier and more efficient. This brings consistency that not only keeps productivity on track but also helps with compliance with ISO 17025 and other requirements.
Lack of traceability
A single laboratory may be responsible for hundreds or more tests each week. And a test is not simply a test, it’s the sum of many parts. Where did a sample originate, what is the maintenance history of the instrument used, what are the reagents and standards used for the test, when was the analyst last certified, and which vendor supplied the consumables? Answering these questions retrospectively can be time-consuming — and that time can sap productivity.
Analysts routinely spend a quarter of their productive time simply collecting data to defend a result. This can take away from time that should be spent contributing to productivity and profitability. But defending data isn’t optional. And this is yet another area where data management software is about more than just data collection and reporting — it’s about enabling productivity. It’s about quickly returning to the job at hand — rapidly, efficiently and accurately delivering results across the business that enable production to continue uninterrupted.
Today, a LIMS can reach across an enterprise: it still sits in the lab, but it integrates with data in MRP, ERP and other enterprise systems in ways that directly impact defensibility. No more searching in multiple places, often a combination of hand-written notes, spreadsheets and reports: everything required to defend a result is aggregated and organized for rapid analysis and reporting.
When many labs think of trend analysis, then don’t often associate it with instrument maintenance, but that’s a mistake. This reflects a misunderstanding of the importance of maintenance, especially preventive maintenance.
Data such as area counts, baseline conductivity and retention time provide valuable evidence that, if trended and analyzed, can reveal much about the health of an instrument. LIMS such as SampleManager actually offer capabilities that allow users to monitor instrument health so that work can be assigned more effectively on a regular maintenance schedule. Users are notified of upcoming maintenance — even of wear-part failure, so that maintenance can be scheduled before failure becomes an issue.
Analysts will tell you that they “get to know” their instruments, but sometimes signs are too subtle to sense the failure before it occurs, and the instrument goes down. And with new grads, transfers and others who are unfamiliar with various instrument types cycling through a lab, there is simply too much margin for error. To understand what an instrument is telling them, it’s much smarter for labs to rely on data: by simply setting a sample point and watching for deviation, labs can effectively give themselves an early warning system. And this can be easily done using a LIMS.
Does instrument downtime seem trivial? It better not, because when a GC goes down, for example, it can impact batch delivery and much more. And looking backward after a production stoppage or slowdown hardly solves the problem today. Now, it’s more important than ever for labs to demonstrate that they can play a proactive role in driving productivity and profitability. But it’s hard to make that case when instruments are down or poorly calibrated and your lab is what stands between a business being fully operational and standing still.
Conclusion: Small steps create big changes
Energy companies are more focused than ever on productivity and profitability. Across the enterprise, everything must be closely scrutinized, especially everyday problems that can seem trivial. Labs would be wise to look inward too, starting with the problems discussed in this article. Closing these gaps can have a demonstrable impact on productivity and profitability, not to mention easing the burdens associated with increasingly more onerous regulatory requirements.
A modern lab in the energy industry should be a productivity partner, capable of not only driving greater efficiency and profitability but also of mitigating future risk. Interruptions during exploration, production and distribution are costly, and labs do not want to be the reason. Proactive management can help. Likewise, better data management can help with regulatory compliance, planning, R&D innovation and so much more. In this regard, the LIMS should be seen as a catalyst for an entire enterprise, not simply a tool for managing a lab. Then the lab can be positioned in a totally different light as a driver of — not an impediment to — productivity and profitability.
Trish Meek is Senior Manager, Product Marketing Informatics & Chromatography Software, at Thermo Fisher Scientific and Jeanne Mensingh is President of Labtopia Solutions.
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