Predictive service can see problems before they occur, reducing downtime and maximizing productivity.

Technology has advanced at an exponential rate in recent decades, driving the development of increasingly sophisticated tools. Yet, the way we think about maintaining those tools hasn’t kept pace. Although the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud connectivity have driven tremendous innovation and new forms of value in most other areas, we continue to be stuck in a largely break/fix mentality when it comes to service. It is only in the past several years that lab instrument manufacturers have begun leveraging IoT and cloud connectivity to develop a new service paradigm, using data-driven, actionable insights to anticipate and predict lab customers’ needs and provide more proactive, timely support.

Industrial and applied science laboratories have long prioritized sample throughput volume, instrument availability and 24/7 continuous operation. In the past, those were less of a priority for academic and government research labs. However, the tremendous increase in competition for research grants and awards, along with a greater need to drive breakthroughs and publish faster and more frequently, have made efficiency, productivity and instrument uptime high priorities on the research side as well.

In addition, both applied and research labs have seen a shift in staffing to include people with varying levels of technical expertise who may need additional support to help them operate lab instruments efficiently, produce accurate and reliable data, and ensure optimal performance and uptime.

What if we could help these labs foresee issues before they occur? What if service professionals could adjust microscopes or provide insight to optimize system performance remotely? The labs of today demand an accurate, timely picture of their overall system health so they can predict and plan for instrument downtime. Instrument manufacturers can play a crucial role in maximizing productivity.

Transforming data into actionable intelligence  
A key concept in reimagining the fundamental service value proposition for instrument manufacturers is transforming data into actionable intelligence that creates significant incremental value. Today’s technology allows manufacturers to remotely monitor and analyze customers’ raw environmental, system and usage data across multiple labs and extract actionable insights from that data. These data-driven insights empower manufacturers to provide customers with more proactive and predictive service that helps improve their efficiency, productivity and instrument uptime.

Remote monitoring and analysis of real-time data can help optimize the timing of a lab’s workflow and preventative maintenance. For example, an algorithm might be used to alert one of the manufacturer’s engineers if the lab downloads a complex workflow involving one or more instruments that are due for a service visit soon. The engineer could then proactively reschedule maintenance to happen before the lab starts the workflow to ensure optimal performance and avoid a possible downtime issue in the middle of an analysis.

Remote monitoring algorithms can also be used to alert a manufacturer and, in turn a lab, to imminent problems with an ultra-low temperature freezer, for example. This could warn the lab days or weeks in advance that work may be necessary to prevent possible equipment failure.

Today’s leading instrument and service providers can offer a tiered service portfolio that provides workflow validation, on-site applications support, remote monitoring and periodic reviews. Labs are increasingly demanding this level of service, using instrument data to constantly monitor for possible maintenance or necessary recalibration. Technical experts can monitor and review system parameters so that service and/or applications experts can be quickly dispatched if necessary for an expedient diagnosis. Periodic on-site reviews allow the manufacturer to summarize system health, performance and utilization metrics for a given period. It’s also an opportunity for lab managers to ask and answer questions, address operation issues and provide feedback.

Real-world examples
We have encountered situations in labs around the world where our customers’ productivity has been enhanced by remote monitoring and proactive or predictive service. 

At one academic research lab, the dewar and autoloader temperature were heating up before the dewar was filled with liquid nitrogen. An autoloader’s warm-up can degrade sample quality and/or create sample detection issues. Because we were monitoring the lab’s equipment remotely, we detected this problem and sent a field service engineer to investigate. The engineer found that the liquid nitrogen filling lines were too long, allowing LN2 in the pipes to evaporate. As a result, the facility shortened the filling lines, which not only avoided downtime but also enabled the sample integrity to be preserved.

As another example, while reviewing remote monitoring data at a semiconductor lab, we saw that the suppressor voltage on a newly installed focused ion beam (FIB) microscope was running significantly higher than was optimal. Our trend analysis suggested that because of long heating times the source would be at maximum range in three to four weeks. Our factory advised the lab to have local experts lower the extractor voltage to a specific level and then return the extractor to the original setting, monitor suppressor behavior and report any subsequent issues to our factory. Our remote monitoring, insights and recommendations helped the lab extend the life of the FIB source and prevented unscheduled downtime.

More opportunities to add value
The shift to a more proactive, predictive approach to service can add value at many levels. For one, today’s instruments are more complex even as the operators who use them have more varied levels of instrument-specific expertise. Manufacturers now recognize the importance of helping less technical users be more successful and productive with a new instrument or application. For example, operators who have never used electron microscopy for structural biology can be coached on how to set up the IPL (intense pulsed light) parameters and monitor what to look for, ensuring they get valid data from the system.

Another benefit comes with replenishment of consumables. Running out of a consumable in the middle of a workflow can ruin samples and cause costly, unplanned downtime. More and more consumables use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to enable viewing, tracking and reporting of critical information, such as consumable lot, usage and expiration dates. Automated tracking minimizes administrative tasks and reduces the chances of error or omission. State-of-the-art software can automate replenishment as part of preapproved workflow parameters. If, for example, a chromatography column is good for 500 injections, an integrated RFID tag can let an instrument operator quickly determine that 300 injections have been saved, so she knows there are 200 injections remaining before the column must be switched.

In addition, manufacturers who have the necessary expertise can apply their proactive, predictive approach to support all the instruments in a customer’s lab, a holistic asset management approach that can drive even more productivity.

The future of service
The next phase of the evolving shift toward predictive service will be the most exciting: a radical reimagining of the service value proposition. Instrument manufacturers will enter into strategic partnerships with labs to help them not only operate more efficiently and productively, but also achieve their goals more successfully. By bringing manufacturers into their confidence, sharing detailed information about their goals and projects and providing secure access to data, labs will empower manufacturers to become true business partners, not only supporting the lab’s productivity and outcomes, but also sharing accountability based on mutually agreed-upon, measurable, shared objectives.

In five years, the basic expectation for service contracts from instrument manufacturers may well include ongoing, remote monitoring of lab instruments and health of the system. Labs will expect their instrument partners to be proactive about anticipating and addressing issues; optimizing performance; maximizing uptime; and planning downtime more strategically.

Looking even further out, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will play a significant role in both instrument training and tech support. For example, identifying the right part number is often a challenge for customers. If they could look inside a virtual instrument through an AR viewer and simply point to the part that must be replaced, that’s an easy, intuitive and efficient way to ensure the correct part is ordered. Or if there is a problem, a user in the lab could use Google Glass or an equivalent AR device to enable a tech support person 1,000 miles away to look at the system remotely and say, “Can you show me the back of the instrument so we can check to see whether there is a loose plug? Okay, plug it back in securely and let’s see whether that solves the issue,” without having to send an engineer to troubleshoot the instrument in person.

Leveraging data, connectivity, analytics and insights into customers’ instruments, systems and business and research objectives is a win-win approach for instrument manufacturers and labs. By remotely monitoring system usage and health and being proactive and preventative, manufacturers and labs can work in unison. The ability to maintain and service instruments and systems in a more strategic, thoughtfully planned way, is better than settling for an antiquated, reactive break-fix approach. And, by becoming co-accountable with their lab customers in achieving shared goals and objectives, manufacturers can also share in their customers’ success.

Remotely monitoring system usage and health can optimize the timing of a lab’s workflow and preventative maintenance.