In the mid-1970s, the combination of industrial action by coal miners with the OAPEC oil embargo meant that the UK was running desperately short of fuel for electricity generation. As a result, the government implemented a short-lived program of restricting non-essential business activity to a three-day workweek. This period of UK history had ramifications that continue now, with many of those who lived through it desperate to avoid a repeat of the economic and social pressures that resulted.
However, as a young worker in Silicon Valley in the mid-2000s, it sounded like a jolly good idea to me. It didn’t seem fair that my dad’s generation got to work three 7-hour days a week, while I was working five 9-hour days. In order to bolster my argument to my parents that I had been unfairly saddled with excessive work, I started to collect labor productivity statistics. For example, did you know that each hour of work in the UK produces twice as much stuff today as it did 40 years ago? Shouldn’t that mean that I get to live the same standard of life as my parents with only half the amount of work?
Well, yes and no. But one of the key drawbacks to this argument is that we don’t really want to live as we did 40 years ago; our expectations about living standards have increased. Similarly, gains in the speed of HPLC separations in our laboratories don’t mean that we reduce the number of systems we have: the competitive business environment of today requires us to continually raise output.
With that in mind, when HPLC vendors promote the “productivity” of their systems, it’s often difficult to know exactly what they mean. Are they talking about the number of samples that can be run in a day on one system? Aare they talking about how much it costs to run one sample? Or are they talking about how many people it takes to produce the results needed? It can all get quite confusing.
I’m therefore going to start by going to what our customers tell us they need from their HPLC systems and use that to try to define what “productivity” in our business means. The next post in this series will explore how you can use the products in our portfolio to achieve your goals within this framework.
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The most frequent comment we hear from our customers is that they need results: results from quality assurance checks, results from high throughput screening, results from purification, and so on. This demand for results is often irrespective of whether there is sufficient stock of instrumentation to run them, whether any instrumentation is undergoing maintenance, or whether there are analysts available to operate them.
On a fundamental level, then, productivity should simply be defined as the results delivered within a certain time frame under the constraints dictated by budgets, physical space, and expertise. We find that the values sought in new HPLC instrumentation all tie into this: reliability, speed, robustness, accuracy, and so on. Our contention is therefore that:
- Number of systems owned: It goes without saying that, with all else equal, you will have a greater number of systems operating if you have more systems! However, with budget, labor, and physical space constraints, it isn’t always a simple matter to add more systems.
- Maintenance requirements: Systems will periodically need to be taken offline to perform routine maintenance. The more easily that this can be planned in advance, and the simpler the maintenance is to perform, will increase the number of systems operating at any time.
- Mean time between failures: This is typically what we mean by a reliable system, where there is a long time between system breakdowns (or preferably, none at all!)
- Time to repair: If repairs can easily be performed by in-house experts, systems will be more quickly brought back to operational status than if outside repair is needed.
- Faster separations: This has probably been the most frequently discussed aspect of productivity, especially since the introduction of the first Thermo Scientific™ Vanquish™ UHPLC system. You can read about this more with Dr. Timothy Cross’ recent blog post on, you guessed it, productivity!
- Successful automation: When automation works well, it means that you can run more analyses with the same number of operators, or free them to pursue other activities, such as eating, sleeping, or running other experiments.
- Sample capacity: Closely related to automation – if you can load up an autosampler with an astonishing 8,832 samples, as in the case of the Vanquish Charger Module, then you can maximize the available time by running 24/7.
- Operator error: I am guilty of, on multiple occasions, incorrectly specifying the position of a vial in an autosampler, letting my eluent bottle run dry, or failing to appropriately bracket my samples with check standards. While I’ve been quite relieved to find that I’m not the only one, it also highlights the need for systems to support operators to minimize these errors and increase analytical success.
- System robustness: The system needs to deliver consistent results, even with environmental and sample variability. Consistent column thermostatting, minimal baseline fluctuations, stable detectors, and many more factors influence this.
While optimizing all these factors may not get you to a three-day workweek, it certainly will bring success to you, your lab, and your business. Then you’ll be in a much better position to negotiate for more vacation!
Do we have this list complete? Feel free to leave a comment all the way at the bottom of the page (you may have to scroll further than you expect).