Editorial Article: Webinar Highlights: How to Keep Your Sample Tracking Error-Free

Read the highlights and Q&A from part one of the webinar series: Innovations in Laboratory Efficiency and Analytical Workflows

26 May 2017

Image credit: angellodeco_123rf


Enabling your laboratory to run efficiently requires simple and robust protocols, which help ensure you get reliable and accurate data across your lab workflows. In this webinar, Stewart Fairlie, Staff Engineer at Seagate Technology and Dave Edwards, Vials & Closures, Thermo Fisher Scientific, describe an innovative way to track your samples without risk of error. They also explain how improved vial identification can prevent flaws in data integrity, increasing defensibility of analytical results.

Current standards and the unattainable ideal labeling scenario

Vials come in all shapes and sizes and sample identification is paramount to ensure the integrity of your results. Hand-written labels are commonplace in most laboratories, however, this method is very labor intensive and highly prone to errors. Considered to be a ‘necessary evil’, it is generally agreed that current labeling practices do not add value to your workflow and can become expensive from the rework perspective. Dave highlights how, despite this, 82% of labs still use hand-written labels. In a perfect world, it would be possible to label every molecule contained within a given sample with the unique ID of the sample, he explained. Doing so would remove any possible doubts about sample identity. Dave calls this the ‘unattainable ideal labeling scenario’, however, this doesn’t mean that it is not worth striving for and Dave notes that his recent efforts have been to get as close to this ideal as possible.

His research has revealed that there is a vast gap between how labs perceive the importance of factors such as ease of marking, legibility, and error reduction etc., and how satisfied they actually are. Dave calculated that the average time it takes to manually label a vial is 39 seconds and the average lab typically spends over 225 hours a year doing just that. When combined with the statistic for the average wage paid to an analyst - $29/hr - Dave estimated that over $6500 in labor is spent on labeling each year by a typical laboratory.

Thermo Scientific™ Virtuoso™ Vial Identification System  

The solution to the problem

All is not lost, however. Dave goes on to explain that recent advances in technology have been able to eliminate many of these issues. The solution? The Thermo Scientific™ Virtuoso™ Vial Identification System. He explains how the Virtuoso System is able to generate and apply near-permanent, easy-to-read labels to help improve your workflow. The option of adding barcoding also offers a significant increase in the amount of information you are able to store on each vial, such as the type of sample preparation that has been performed. As Dave points out, it also allows centralization of sample information with your lab’s LIMS/CDS systems, meaning higher data integrity and productivity gains.

Stewart Fairlie, Staff Engineer at Seagate Technology, then shares his lab’s experiences of the Virtuoso System, which it recently adopted to help streamline workflows. He explains how he uses it for HPLC, GC, and IC sample vials and that it had vastly reduced errors in sample tracking at his site. With a touchscreen interface, he estimates that it takes around 3-5 seconds per vial and, after performing a timed trial with 20 vials, he observed a 50% reduction in time taken to fully label all vials. Combined with its small footprint and customizable templates, Stewart highlights the significant gains he has been seeing. To conclude, he comments that the Virtuoso System is a valuable asset for labs performing regular scheduled analyses, where sample sources remain consistently ID’d for long lengths of time, or if your workflows require sample vials to hold more detailed information, benefiting from the use of a barcoding system.regular scheduled analyses, where sample sources remain consistently ID’d for long lengths of time, or if your workflows require sample vials to hold more detailed information, benefiting from the use of a barcoding system.


Read on for the highlights of the Q&A session from this event, or watch the presentation on-demand here.


How many Virtuoso™ Vial Identification Systems do you recommend for analytical labs which label on a regular basis? How would this affect the cost/efficiency ratio for a lab of 30-40 people?

DE: That’s an excellent question. The design of the Virtuoso, as we sought, was that it would be capable of handling anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 samples per year. Once the volume of samples goes beyond 30,000, you might want to question if it is the right time to put a second one in. You can review your processes when bottlenecks start to occur and go about it that way, but we found that the 20,000 to 30,000 range is standard for most laboratories. In terms of a cost/efficiency analysis, we have an online tool that we walk through to help each laboratory decide the number of Virtuosos they would need and what the cost/benefit ratio is. If you’ve got a large sample volume that is creating a backlog, even if you are only able to take half of that away, that is still a gain. We can walk through what it looks like to do a full analysis for a laboratory to help them decide what that break-even point is.

SF: We do a return-of-investment to work out how quickly it pays for itself and there’s not a big difference between the cost of the different types of vials for this. It can easily be just a few months before it pays for itself.


With all the different barcodes out there, what is the best type of barcode to use?

DE: I would say that the most thorough and robust type of barcode to use would be the 2D type. There are a number of different types of barcodes out there, such as the 1D barcodes, which you typically see in grocery stores to scan the prices in. Another type is QR codes, which are heavily used in marketing and are classed as 2D data matrix codes. We have found that 2D data matrix codes are able to take a lot more information and can provide much more robust information than just the sample ID. We have some clients who are using these to put additional information onto their vial, such as extraction date or who carried out the sample preparation. In one case, there was a question about a sample and, rather than digging through laboratory notebooks, the client was able to simply scan through the barcode to find out who did the extraction and the date that it was extracted.


Do the vials go through the Virtuoso with the caps on or off, does it make a difference?

DE: It doesn’t make much of a difference, however, we advise customers to put vials through the Virtuoso with the caps off and that’s for two reasons:

  1. If the caps are on, there’s a good chance that they’ve tried to put the vial through with some solvent inside with the sample to be analyzed. If the cap was not tightly secured and there was a leak, this could cause a problem inside the system.
  2. Thermal desorption is the technique used for printing so there is a little bit of heat that applies the ink to the patch itself. I wouldn’t want to compromise the sample with a little bit of heat. In some cases, it may not make a difference but in others it might when the caps are on. 


Where within the laboratory is the best place to install a labeling device, such as the Virtuoso?

DE: It depends on your workflow. One of the things that we like to do when we’re consulting with a customer is to walk through their laboratory and look at their workflow to make sure the system is placed in a spot that is adding value – we certainly don’t want to put it in a place where it could become the bottleneck.


Does the system require bespoke vials that are made specifically for the Virtuoso, or can it print on any vial with a white writing area?

DE: We have designed the system to work specifically with our vials and there’s a concrete reason for that. When we were developing the Virtuoso System, we didn’t intend for it to be specific to our vials but what we discovered was that all patches on vials are not created equally. It quickly became evident that some vials are easily printed on, whilst the printing did not seem to want to take on others. That required us to determine which patch material and which ink were the best combination to provide the most robust vial patch print available - we didn’t want to have customers come back to us and say that the system could not print on their vials or that it was not working and have us go through the whole process of finding out which vial or patch they were using. Therefore, to control the quality of the printing to go through the Virtuoso, we had to require that you use the patch that we use. But having said that, we have not put a surcharge on the vial, making it a razor blade type of situation or a home printer, where you get the printer relatively cheap but then you must pay an extortionate amount for the ink. We have kept everything the same price so that there is no up-charge because you have to use our vial.


Do you use any of the technology discussed in this webinar? Write a review today for a chance to win an Amazon voucher worth $400 (or equivalent currency) or an iPad Air®.