If you’ve ever spent time around children, you know that when all is quiet that something’s not right. You expect a baseline level of comforting noise – chattering, thumping, and a general buzz of activity and engagement – sometimes punctuated by the occasional happy shriek or sad wail. The same is true in the research lab.
While running a lab may not be the same as raising kids – though some may argue otherwise –
there are commonalities. Your experiments are your “work children.” You look after them, care about their wellbeing and their future, and you want to see them grow up successfully. Instead of friends and extended family members providing all manner of support along the way, there are staff helping run those experiments and mind the equipment and instruments that are used – quietly ‘listening’ to what is happening. But, unlike taking care of human kids, there are many times when you are not actively watching over your experiments: during lunch, during meetings, overnight, and over weekends. And those gaps in your ability to watch and listen are when trouble often occurs. Something goes wrong – sometimes a little wrong, sometimes a lot – and you often don’t know that your attention was needed until it’s too late. We wanted to understand more about these events and their frequency.
With backgrounds in experimental research and lots of experience with things going wrong, we set out to understand how often something in the lab needs your attention. Over a six-month period, we installed numerous Elements (small, intelligent, wireless sensor-rich devices) in our customers’ facilities – monitoring variables including temperature, light, and humidity in freezers, refrigerators, ovens, incubators, controlled rooms, etc. What we found was staggering, but not surprising.
Over a six-month period, we collected and analyzed more than 50 million sensor readings from these sites, and found that we alerted staff in our customers’ facilities to something critical that required their attention every single day. On average, our customers received one alert per day (many days, multiple alerts). Even with hundreds of employees executing protocols, watching equipment, and running experiments, there was at least one thing that the intelligent sensors alerted them every single day to that they weren’t actively tracking.
In practical terms, these real-time communications have prevented millions of dollars of damage to samples, and helped researchers identify factors contributing to research outcomes in a range of diverse lab environments – because these researchers and lab managers can now ‘hear’ what their labs are saying. Their labs are telling them – on a daily basis – to look more closely at fluctuations in environmental conditions, or to immediately check on a piece of critical equipment. They are getting important messages when conditions inside of equipment are outside of specified ranges, potentially compromising a research protocol. And that’s only the beginning.
For researchers, being able to monitor experimental variables and be immediately alerted to issues as they arise is like being able to unobtrusively hear kids playing without interrupting them. You have the comfort of knowing that all’s well and the confidence that if anything is amiss, you will discover it instantly.