VIB lab gains insights in machine use and creates open lab culture

An interview with Rouslan Efremov, Group Leader VIB, about the challenges in the VIB lab and the cooperation with Toolsquare.

My impression is that the amount of downtime of the centrifuges has reduced dramatically.


What were the challenges in the VIB lab? 

Our initial observation was to have control of our instruments in the VIB lab as we have a lot of expensive instruments. We wanted to know who uses them, when they use them and we also wanted to have control of our access to the instruments. We could thus allow access to people that have been properly trained. 

The second reason why we were interested in Toolsquare was to know how much the instruments are used. Many are expensive and some periods these instruments are booked, other times they are not used very much. Without the proper data, we didn’t know whether we needed to buy another instrument or optimize the usage of existing instruments. We also wanted to know the downtime of the instruments, whether it was linked to misuse and how much it cost to maintain them.

Only later did we realize the smart lab assistant can also improve safety because you can programme questions or reminders in it to verify the required procedures.   

How was the downtime of VIB lab machines before and after Toolsquare?

The VIB laboratory managers were informed when a machine was broken. This could take a day or two days. But sometimes people don’t inform the lab manager immediately when a machine is broken. Then it’s the next user that discovers the problem two days after. Now, we save two days on the repair. My impression is that the amount of downtime of the centrifuges has reduced dramatically.

In what way did Toolsquare help you with external teams that use your lab machines?

In this case it becomes very important to have a good log book. Now, we can send an invoice based on the usage of the machines to external people. Apart from that, we also have common equipment shared between all the labs of the department which are also used differently by different groups. Some groups never use it, some groups use it everyday. To model future investments, it’s important to know who actually needs the instruments and who is using them.

VIB lab incubators

Did you have tools to extract information from paper logbooks?

Usually we didn’t. Very occasionally we went back to look in the logbook, but we were never really sure whether there were users that did not log in. Before, there was always someone in the VIB lab. It is really important that we can eliminate this person with Toolsquare. 

How does Toolsquare help with safety? 

Using the smart lab assistant we are sure that everyone who has access has actually been trained to use this equipment. That makes a big difference. It creates more responsible use of instruments and immediate reporting of issues because we can do it directly on the Toolsquare unit. 

Has Toolsquare helped VIB embrace an open lab culture? 

I think it does help to make it more open. We used to have some issues with equipment owned by a certain group but occasionally used by other groups. With Toolsquare, we can keep the group specific equipment accessible to other labs since we can check whether they have been trained. It also ends the discussion about who needs to contribute to buy the next machine or service, or who broke it. There is a perfect traceability of usage of the machine. 

There is a perfect traceability of usage of the machine. 

On one hand you could see the Toolsquare unit as a limiting factor because you need to use a badge. But in reality, Toolsquare makes the environment more open and fair. Usage statistics tell us how much the instruments are used, whether we need to buy a new or second instrument or go to the next lab to use an instrument. In short, it is really a great tool. 

VIB lab-electron-microscope
VIB lab electron microscope

How did the collaboration between the VIB-VUB structural biology lab and Toolsquare come about? 

The story began when I went to Fablab Brussels. The manager, Lieven, asked to come see what they have. He was really proud of the Toolsquare system in their lab. I realized it was a really efficient way of using the equipment in a multi-user environment where you have a lot of users, like students. These users all have different levels of experience. Instead of constantly supervising those people you just need to use toolsquare’s smart lab assistant that provides you perfect traceability. It also makes people more responsible when they know that their machine use is registered. I think they make sure the instrument is clean after they finish their run.

At the time, we thought it would be really nice to implement it in our department. For similar reasons, since we also have many users. There are also always new people. Having traceability and control over who uses the machines, when, and how was therefore very important. 

When we started talking about these smart lab assistant units with David, we realized it could also be used for other purposes. It could help improve safety ensuring people go through essential checklists before using the machine. Then we started looking at the data we wanted to extract. We realized the usage statistics could help us make date-driven decisions. 

How important are the statistics on usage now?

All the funding organizations, including FWO, which is the main funder of basic scientific research in Flanders, are now all concerned with data management. From this point of view, Toolsquare helps us a lot. It is essentially an electronic logbook, with statistics of everything. According to the requirements of the granting agencies we have to log all the usage of the instruments. Before, when they asked for statistics we were struggling, going through the old paper logbooks to calculate the usage. Now we obtain statistics with one click. 

Right now, you can tell when machines are not used. Do you see Toolsquare as enabling a sharing economy between multiple universities or research groups? 

Yes, that is very useful. In the past we did have problems with the ultracentrifuge. We have just one and it was down for weeks. Since it is essential for research we had to go to other universities to use their ultracentrifuge. Now, sharing equipment is possible through accountancies. So when you know someone has a specific instrument, you can just call and ask. 

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