LEAN labs use work cells, auto data capture for more efficient workflow

July 1, 2011


ant to improve specimen workflow and other lab efficiencies by using LEAN work cells and automating the data-capturing process? The allure of a LEAN work cell is that the laboratory is configured to operate as efficiently as possible. From equipment to manual workstations, every component is arranged to follow processes for a given product (e.g., a specimen) to support continuous workflow and minimize delays. A LEAN work cell will help:

  • reduce lead times;
  • minimize handling and walking distances;
  • improve visual management, inventory management, and staff communication;
  • reduce work in progress (e.g., samples wait-ing for processing, or test results waiting for review and release); and
  • use less space.

Creating a work cell

To set up a work cell, assess how the lab functions in its current state, then create a “future state” map of an ideal process through value-stream mapping, or VSM. First, collect current-state infor-mation while walking along the actual path-way of the material and in-formation that flows through the lab. This helps staff members identify the most wasteful steps in the process. They will learn much of the informa-tion needed to prop-erly design work cells, measure process/in-strument capacity, and identify ways to improve. (See “Tips for designing a work cell.”)

Automated data capture

Success with LEAN work cells involves more than just an efficient layout. The most productivity is gained by combining LEAN strategies and automated data capture.

Laboratory information-management systems (LIMS) have advantages but have been mainly designed for larger labs, which can more easily afford the cost and have dedicated IT staff. Small to mid-size labs have created their own data-management systems using spreadsheets or other paper-based methods. This can lead to more errors and higher costs, as well as require lab personnel to spend more time on paperwork than lab responsibilities.

Whatever the lab’s size, improved productivity and reduced errors and costs can be achieved by using automated ID and data capture (AIDC). The AIDC process lets lab personnel quickly locate critical information, collect data, and transfer the information directly into the lab’s data-management system. To gather and track data, AIDC technologies typically include barcodes, RFID, magnetic strips, or other such technologies. An AIDC system gives a lab numerous advantages including

  • true implementation of LEAN work-cell specimen processing;
  • ensuring accuracy of data capture at any point in the process;
  • reduces chance for human error;
  • contributes to a robust quality-control system needed for lab accreditation and financial success;
  • chain-of-custody tracking;
  • ability to take full advantage of new 2D barcoding trends;
  • easier bioinformatics sharing with other labs; and
  • faster test results for customers.

To implement an AIDC system, ensure that all ID labels are durable. Labels should be able to withstand all processes in the lab without falling off the specimen container or losing legibility. Look for labels designed specifically for the environment in which they will be used (e.g., liquid nitrogen or autoclave). If the lab uses tissue cassettes, look for a unit (e.g., a staker) that will permanently affix the label to the cassette.

Thermal transfer print technology offers the permanent, reliable identification for labs, as well as crisp, clear 2D and linear barcodes for scanning after processing and prolonged storage. A high-performance barcode reader can quickly capture a barcode image, even on curved or shiny surfaces. Look for readers that offer a keyboard and graphic display for added flexibility, digital image capture, multiple output options, and hands-free operation.

To house data capturing, look for a LIM system developed specifically for small to mid-size labs. A recently launched a LIMS-on-demand program puts LIMS functionality within reach of small to mid-size labs. Another offers a small LIMS with tube, vial, and tissue storage, as well as tracking software.

Tips for designing a work cell

A primary goal of using work cells is to maintain continuous workflow with as little waiting as possible. Many labs use a U-shaped work cell, but another layout may work better for particular operations.

  • Arrange workstations in the order of the processing steps.
  • Keep a minimum of supplies in the work cell — only enough for a shift or a day.
  • Operators should never have to wait for machines to function. An operator should load, cycle, release results, and unload each machine while the instrument processes small batches of work.
  • When possible, replenish supplies from the perimeter of the work cell to reduce workflow disruption.

Dana Ray
is senior product manager, Brady North America Materials. To learn more about these trends and Brady’s identification and tracking solutions, visit

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