Effective IoT for Laboratory Equipment
May 15, 2020
Effective implementation of an (IoT) Internet of Things System is to create a solution where all stakeholders have buy-in, maximizing usability, and eliminating barriers to system integration.
Welcome to the latest episode of Get Sparked. Today, Rob and I are going to go into IoT and just how laboratories and research facilities, in particular, can leverage IoT to make smarter and more efficient laboratories.
Thanks, Dave. I’m excited to learn more about IoT for laboratory equipment. When we were first talking about IoT, honestly I had to look it up. Can you explain a little bit of what IoT stands for? What does it mean?
Sure. IoT stands for internet of things. Basically it is a
category of the digital revolution where we’re making smart everything. For
example, the smart refrigerator that tells you what you’re low on and can
report to you as you’re at the grocery store, things like that. It helps bring
efficiencies to everyday life. Part of that, idea is you take things that are
happening that many of us already understand in our everyday lives and take the
technology and apply it to laboratories and facilities that can generate big
savings both in time and money by leveraging IoT in their facilities. Again,
IoT, internet of things. It’s basically the smart revolution of the digital
That sounds really good, but how does this apply to facilities and laboratories, and how’s this going to be used?
It’s a good question because it sounds great in theory, but getting down to the nuts and bolts of the application is the importance and that’s where we’re going to go in this episode. It really comes down to at a summary level three things. It’s realizing the opportunity, what is the missed cost of not implementing IoT, and what are ways that you’re currently wasting time or money that you can cut out. Because ultimately that’s their approval for things. The second part is kind of redefining the process of getting equipment serviced. Right now it’s very reactionary and IoT allows you to get away from the reactionary nature of even preventative maintenance and show you how to implement smarter preventative maintenance plans. The last part that we’ll go over is the innovative features that are all protected by an elite level of security. Because that’s important anytime you implement internet into devices, to networks, especially at the leading research universities and facilities around the world.
Dave, you and I both work for R-V Industries in Southeastern Pennsylvania and R-V has a line of sterilization equipment, the Beta Star life science equipment, the Beta Star Sterilizers. What are the benefits with IOT in sterilization and the laboratory industry?
The goal of implementing this IOT technology, spending less time washing and sterilizing, and more time on the value-added processes that your facility is undertaking, whether it be production or research. Those are the things where you as a researcher, as a technician are uniquely qualified to add value. I mean even more important in today’s Covin 19 world. The goal in IOT implementation is to give you more time and more money to spend on those initiatives that are ever more important.
In what ways can facilities realize efficiencies?
Take, for example, the idea of every time a sterilizer, a washer, any type of cyclical equipment runs, there’s a time between the cycle being completed and unloading the load and loading the next load. Oftentimes people forget because they’re not sitting there for 45 minutes to watch a machine run a cycle. There’s wasted time in between those cycles. The idea of implementing IOT and one of the features is you can get notifications on the end of cycle to your phone, through an app, and that can help you cut down on that inner cycle wait time. For example, I ran a little calculation. If you’re running 45 minutes cycles every day, eight hours a day, factoring in for even 10 minutes of wait time between running a cycle and starting the next cycle, you’re wasting 42 less cycles per month. Which comes out to 2100 minutes of equipment time wasted. That’s a lot. For facilities that are are high throughput on their washing and sterilization needs, this could help dramatically cut down on that inner cycle wait time, as I’ve termed it.
That is a lot of time. Dave, one thing I noticed from
working with the team at Beta Star is the serviceability of the sterilizers.
The sterilizer itself is a high service item. It does a lot of work and there’s
a lot of wear and tear. Do you see IOT helping in the world of service for
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a bold claim, but I truly believe
that widespread implementation of IOT could fundamentally change the way that
we look at service for autoclaves in particular for the Beta Star side of
things, but also your washer. Today it’s reactionary. Even your components.
Rob, you mentioned your, your high wear components, like gaskets, valves,
things like that. A lot of that information on lifespan is averaged based on
what the component manufacturer is telling you. There’s no concept of looking
at it from how you use the equipment. Rob, talk a little bit about how standard
preventative maintenance plans work in today’s day and age.
Right now you have these autoclaves which are workhorses running very hard, but then you’ll get an alarm that says it’s not getting to temperature, or the doors not opening, or the drains not working. You don’t know exactly what’s going on and some of these autoclaves don’t tell you what’s happening. You’re going to have to call your service provider. Whether you have an autoclave under contract, or emergency service only because it’s down and you need to process your liquids, your animal bedding, your whatever product it is that’s being processed. The service technician is going to come in there, in some cases rarely that day, the next day or two days. They’re going to have to diagnose what’s going on with your autoclave. Once they figure out what’s wrong, if they have the parts with them on their van, they can fix it. If they don’t, they’re going to have to get those parts on order. That’s going to take a couple of days and then they have to come back to repair the autoclaves and put the new parts on and get the cycle running again. So all that can take quite a bit of time and it’s mainly the diagnosis that adds to that time not knowing what’s wrong with it. It really adds to the service time.
Absolutely. And each of those visits has a cost, right? Especially in the emergency service situation like you described where you’re getting alerts, you’re getting alarms. It’s a big problem and that’s what we’re targeting here and that’s what we’re discussing. To open up the opportunity at facilities to implement these changes and changed service. Take that situation with IOT. The moment you get an alert or an alarm, instead of calling the technician to come out and look at it to see what the HMI is telling you, you can contact the manufacturer of that equipment in this situation, Beta Star, to say hey my autoclaves not working. You can activate the IOT sharing through a manual kill switch, and suddenly our service technicians can look at the same HMI you’re looking at. Think of a zoom meeting or screen sharing meeting. That’s essentially what is going on with the equipment. Then our technicians can speak to your local service technician to let them know, Hey, here’s the problem, here are likely the parts that you’ll need. That service technician can come much more prepared and in many situations cut that visit from two visits, a diagnostic visit and a resolution visit, to one visit where they already have a few ideas of the problem and there’ll be able to come with the different components, equipment, and tools needed to solve that problem right away. Suddenly you’ve cut down on your downtime, you’ve cut down on multi-visit costs and that’s one of the examples and we’ll get into some more. That’s one of the examples of implementing IOT and how it can help you in your laboratories and facilities.
Dave, that’s huge. Just thinking about the downtime that
IOT can save for your equipment. I’ve talked to customers who can’t afford that
type of downtime. You know, days on end because the autoclave basically
supports the flow of their facility. Having an autoclave down can almost halt
their production. You mentioned that it goes beyond the diagnostics and
serviceability. What other types of benefits are we going to see with IOT?
At your basic level. I touched on a little bit earlier is the idea of pushing any at all cycle notifications and even the ability to check in on your piece of equipment that’s running to see where it is in the cycle that can be brought to one person. Say it, facility manager, or even to multiple technicians that are running washroom, an autoclave room, can be brought to each person’s cell phone through an app. You would get notifications just as you would email and text message, through what’s called push notifications. It was kind of a basic level, but it’s a great way, as I touched on earlier, to eliminate inner cycle wait time or unsure time wasted. Another practical aspect is many of the customers that we’ve helped get up to speed after we’re sending equipment. There’s oftentimes an equipment startup process where we’re helping set up the users, set up the different security levels of those users. There’s cycle customization to fit particular media, whether it be animal bedding, or you’re doing primarily liquids. There are many different types of customization. Often that takes a lot of time to set up and save in your equipment’s HMI. Now like any piece of equipment, HMI PLCs, there’s a chance just as there is with computers, unfortunately, that’s something could go wrong and that data could be lost. Without IOT, there is no way to backup all of the customization that you have done for your peace of equipment at your facility. With IOT, you can back up at any point, all of the customization and all the time that has been invested into creating a piece of equipment that’s fit exactly for you. For many highly technical facilities that require consistency, for things like grants and other things, losing that consistency is catastrophic. Backing up the customization that you’ve done is vital to be able to protect against equipment failure. Admittedly, while rare is still a risk. That’s another benefit of IOT. Rob, let me ask you a question as we kind of move on to a different one. What’s the, what type of phone do you have?
I have an iPhone.
Okay. So for me, as an iPhone user as well, when it’s time to update, your, your operating system, what does that look like for you?
Well, it’s actually pretty seamless. I get a notification
that there’s an update available and let it run and it just happens.
Yeah, and now, no. Imagine that same thing for an autoclave. If you were to try to update your HMI, that process is going to be one, days if not weeks of downtime. Two, you’re pulling it out, you’re sending it to the manufacturer, they’re running the updates and sending it back to you that you then have to re-install it into the machine. It’s crazy and thus many don’t do it. There are all types of different patches to improvements in user experience, usability improvements that our controls engineering team, for example, is constantly working on. Without IOT, it’s really a difficult challenge to make it cost-effective and process effective to be able to update your HMI. IOT allows that to be done in the same way that your phone does. It’s a call. It’s the activation of the connection and then we’re updating. That days or weeks time depending on shipment of the HMI and things like that is cut down into minutes or maybe hours.
You were talking about backups earlier because a lot of these facilities have custom cycles based on what it is that they’re autoclaving or sterilizing. For sterility assurance, they might run a certain load pattern for a certain duration. All those cycles and all those usernames could be backed up and then applied to the update.
Yes, absolutely. Applied to the update or applied if
there’s an equipment failure. We as Bet Star could save that in house and that
way you have duplication of the information that you’ve customized and then
whether it’s an update or whether your HMI is three, four, or five years old.
Beta Star could have come out with improvements in that time and we can
implement them through the IOT connection. Thus drastically limit, downtime,
shipping costs, multiple visits from local service techs, that sort of thing.
We’ve been talking about sort of a single unit, single application from your phone. I would like to look at this on a larger scale. When we look at large universities with research contracts or a pharmaceutical application where we have large washrooms with multiple sterilizers, multiple washers, multiple pieces of equipment. It’s not just a single user managing this from their phone. This goes into a facility management program. What does that look like?
To this point, it’s been very single use case. We’ve talked about single-use applications. Many facilities have dozens of pieces of equipment where IOT and some of the benefits we’ve talked about could be realized. Some of the features can be phone driven or mobile device-driven, the tablets and things like that as well. You can also connect it to laptops and desktop computers. The technology enables you to have a centralized hub where equipment notifications can all be sent to one individual instead of notifying every person on the staff. That may not be necessary. The idea here is to bring up multiple pieces of equipment at once. You can monitor four, HMIs four pieces of equipment at a time and bring all your other pieces of equipment into the live screen that a maintenance manager, a facility manager can monitor. Then provide updates or notifications that Hey, this equipment in room three 12 a has just completed its cycle, let’s go unload and get the next load in there so we can keep moving forward. That’s some of the benefits. There’s also a data analysis component too, which we’ll get into a little bit, that can be realized and stored on a laptop, a desktop that you’re going to want to be able to store and analyze equipment usage from that and not on a cell phone.
From reading some of this literature put together for the
IOT. I realized too, it can actually capture cycle data. You don’t have to have
that big pile or those rolls of printouts anymore in a bin next to your
autoclave or next to your sterilizer. All of that cycle data can be captured
electronically and therefore printers aren’t needed anymore. Right?
Ultimately that that’s where you can go. We understand that there’s going to be some hesitations or maybe duplication of efforts so that you have your cycle printouts because that’s how it’s been done for a long time and there’s validation, visual validation that the cycle has been run. All your report metrics have hit time, temperature, pressure in terms of autoclave cycles. On the data analysis side from a digital perspective, you can manage and store all those cycles in a much easier way than you could try to go through boxes of paper to try and figure out, Hey, how many cycles did I run in April of 2020. Without a digital way of storing that information, it’s going to be very, very time consuming to try and figure that out. That’s one of the benefits. You can go past that. You can start to predict and budget for real maintenance needs in terms of how often they’re using this equipment. Therefore, how often am I going to need service on these high wear items. You can also get into even electricity, budgeting, water use, budgeting. There are all sorts of different applications that can bring your facility from a reactionary standpoint where you get the electric bill, you get the water bill each month and that’s what that looks like. You can take it from cycle usage, know the amount of utilities that are being consumed and predict for the future.
If you have a sterilizer autoclave that gets used a lot, you can predict when a solenoid valve needs to be replaced or when a door gasket needs replaced. And if you have an autoclave that is in a different part of the facility that runs once a week, it’s not going to need as much service and you don’t necessarily need the same type of service contract. Right?
Correct. Because the component manufacturers and thus we as sterilizer manufacturers, get average data and that’s what we pass on in terms of solenoid valve expected lifetime, gasket expected lifetime. All of that is driven based on averages. Why? Because we have no usage data. Rob in the scenario you painted there obviously is going to be different lifespan in terms of months for the door gasket on the one that runs every day all day versus the one that’s run once a week. Without having that data to rely on there’s no way to accurately predict that. One of the things that we can start to look at with more data is analyzing the life expectancy of components, valves, gaskets from cycle usage, or even activation usage, the number of times a valve is activated. You can start to look at lifetime expectancy on those and really accurately predict when those components are going to need to be replaced. You can save a lot of money because, in today’s average driven world, for example, the equipment that’s used once a week, you’re going to hit your one year or two years, three-year life expectancy for a component and say, Oh that needs to be replaced now. However, you’re going to have a lot of life expectancy that you just discarded with that component because you’re doing replacements based on averages. On the flip side for that high use item, the chances and the risks of emergency service for a component replacement that fails, say mid-cycle or something like that, the risk of that happening is a lot higher. Because you’re relying on averages where you’re running your equipment much higher than averages. So really in situations, there’s potential for savings for your high use equipment, but also your low use equipment in terms of how often you replace those pieces of equipment.
Dave, I remember a couple of years ago we were at a trade show and you had set up remote access where we had a video camera focused on a sterilizer that was in our shop. We were at a trade show in boy, where were we?
Uh, San Antonio. Yeah.
Okay. We were actually functioning a sterilizer in HoneyBook, PA from San Antonio. There was a lot of components and equipment that was required to make something like that happen. Now, these were the early days of IOT and it’s developed a lot from there, but we still need things like ethernet ports and hubs and different hardware. Can you expand a little bit more about where that’s evolved over several years?
Just to touch on the equipment side of things, first, you mentioned the hub. That is the key to making IOT work. A hub of communication where your internet connection comes into and then from that hub, it ties into the HMI of the machine and that’s how the backend of the implementation works. All Beta Star’s, new machines come ready for this communication hub to be added. They are all capable and there are many ways of implementing this technology on old machines by adding this communication hub into the profile of the equipment. To bring internet connection, Rob, as you alluded to, with an ethernet connection in the early days, was the only way of bringing an internet connection. So obviously there were limitations on the application because if you’re in a room with no ethernet connection, there’s a limitation there. The ethernet connection is the primary way in terms of dependability and reliability. But there are other ways to bring IOT and some of these features we’ve discussed to your facilities equipment. Say ethernet connections, not an option. There are other ways to bring continuous monitoring and the main one is through a cellular connection. There are two ways to implement that. One is that the communication hub can have a cellular SIM card installed. Then through a cellular connection, you can break all of the remote monitoring, notifications, remote technical support from the equipment manufacturer. All of that becomes possible through that cellular connection. The advent of five G technology which is being rolled out in cities as we speak will only improve the speed and dependability of this method of implementation. Both Verizon and CNN have published articles talking that five G is expected to be a hundred times faster than 4g speeds, because of the implementation of all types of smart cars and things like that that you read about on the news. That’s why this five G is being rolled out and certainly, that speed will be more than enough to power an IOT centered laboratory. The other option there is a machine to a machine implementation method. Essentially what this is is a little travel case that also has a cellular SIM card in it. You connect it to an ethernet port installed on the front fascia of the equipment. From there you connect. That begins the connection between the device and the equipment manufacturer in this case Beta Star. Now we can provide technical support on-site and do some of these pre-arrival diagnostics or even a backup, your HMI, install updates, that sort of thing can all be done through this machine to machine application. There’s also the added security that there is no connection to the internet until that machine is physically connected. So there’s control there that many facilities like.
With the equipment connected to an ethernet going through
a facility, what kind of securities offered.
That’s a great point because some of our customers have approached us and understandably so that IT teams are very hesitant to give another entryway into their network from the outside world for fear of compromising their networks. Which is a valid point. A few of the ways you can protect against that for the ethernet connection implementation method is every communication hub has a manual kill switch. When that kill switch is off, there is no connection possible into your facility’s network from Beta Star or anybody else. If you wanted to take it a step further, even unplugging the ethernet cord is another way to manually ensure that that’s done. That connection is protected by a 256-bit encryption connection. A lot of people will ask, well what does that mean? To bring it into layman’s terms. A 256-bit encryption connection. It would take the fastest supercomputer in the world, also known as the MilkyWay-2. It would take it millions of years to decipher the 256-bit encryption code to hack into that piece of equipment. Essentially you’re protected from any sort of forced entry attack that hackers may try to implement. That’s the security measure that we use and is also used by the government and the FBI and all of your leading government agencies.
That’s fascinating Dave. We’ve covered a lot of topics today and thinking back through our conversation, the cost of an autoclave isn’t all in the upfront cost. It’s in the cost of ownership. IoT sounds like, although it has an initial upfront cost, a reduction in the cost of ownership through cycle time savings, downtime savings, we talked about serviceability and diagnostics. You’re going to have a serviceman coming to your door once instead of twice and nowadays we want to try to eliminate the number of people coming into our facilities and there also sounds like a very, very safe and secure way to implement. Do you have any other takeaways from today?
There are ways that you can improve your processes and
spend more time and money on the things that matter. We often talk about at
Beta Star. One of our missions is protecting your research. Well, one of the
ways to do that is by spending more time and more money on the research and the
production side of things as opposed to the equipment that you need to do it.
We really believe that IOT is a way to invest and improve your processes so
that time and money are spent on the things that matter. That is your research
and your production. That’s where the value is. And that’s where IOT helps bring
value to you and your facility.
Thank you again, Dave, and thank you all for joining us.
You’ve been listening to a Get Sparked episode, discovering different ways IOT
can benefit research laboratories. Join us next time as we get sparked about
innovations in manufacturing.