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How Can I Improve Accuracy and Efficiency in My Labware Labeling Strategy?: Two Alternatives to Hand Labeling

Research & Diagnostics, Tube & Vial Label Automation | 29 May 2019

Posted by Jeff Denton

How Can I Improve Accuracy and Efficiency in My Labware Labeling Strategy

Labware needs to be labeled accurately in order to ensure efficiency in the lab, making a precise labeling strategy necessary for success. Knowing how to improve your labeling strategy can be difficult, no two labs are the same and neither is their ideal labeling strategy. What can be said is that hand labeling is holding many labs back from meeting their goals. This post will cover why that is and two alternatives that have proven to increase both accuracy and efficiency in the lab.

Why You Shouldn’t be Labeling Your Own Tubes By Hand

Direct-Mark-imageMany, if not most labs, are currently labeling their tubes and vials by hand. This usually means lab technicians are placing labels on their own tubes and vials prior to use each day. Your lab might be printing and preparing labels using a thermal transfer printer or ordering pre-imaged labels from a supplier. Either way, your technicians are likely tasked with carefully placing labels on each individual tube or vial, trying their best to ensure the right barcode is accurately placed and will remain readable. This process can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours depending on the volume of tubes and vials to be labeled and the number of staff involved.

Why is this a Problem?

If this is what most labs are doing, then it must work, right? Hand labeling typically gets the job done, however there are some unavoidable issues that come as a result of this manual process. 

Placing Labels Accurately Is Difficult


We are only human, so when your team spends an hour and a half placing labels on vials while wearing latex gloves, room for error arises. Whether the cause be muscle strain, labels sticking to protective gear or minds beginning to wander, common hand labeling mistakes occur when barcodes are inaccurately applied to the surface of a tube or vial. When a label folds in on itself, is placed in a crooked orientation, or a pocket of air gets trapped underneath the label, it may become unreadable to automation equipment during later processing. When a label can’t be read precious time can be wasted due to equipment downtime, adjusting the label to make the barcode readable, or valuable samples could end up in the trash as a result of identity loss.

Mislabeling is More Likely to Occur


Another error that occurs frequently when labels are applied by hand is mislabeling. Mislabeling can lead to financial and legal repercussions, or other potentially dangerous situations. If a sample were to be incorrectly labeled and go unnoticed it could hypothetically result in a patient receiving treatment for an inaccurate diagnosis. While extreme, a situation like this could result in harm to the patient, potentially leading them to take legal action. The risk of mislabeling must be eliminated at all costs to avoid situations such as these and relying on manual labeling processes will not cut it.

It can Lead to Workplace Injury


Placing labels on tubes and vials doesn’t sound like a very difficult task, but, the repetitive nature of the action can lead to strain and injury. When someone spends hours a day, week after week, performing the same action over and over they run the risk of developing carpal tunnel or repetitive stress disorder. This can put both the employee and the employer in a tough spot as the employee may end up temporarily out of a job and the employer temporarily short an employee. In a situation where an employer finds themselves short-staffed due to recurring workplace injury, they also must consider hiring more employees to keep up with demand and prevent further instances, even if it’s not financially feasible.

Your Staff are Frustrated


Everything listed above is frustrating, which can of course, lead to frustrated employees. Not only are employees likely to be frustrated due to the pressure of ensuring accuracy and muscle strain, but they’re also likely frustrated about performing such a mundane task every single morning. Not only is labeling tubes and vials repetitive and boring, but it’s taking time away from professionals to do what they were hired and trained to do. There are a great number of more important things to do in the lab than label tubes, and most of those tasks are more fulfilling to employees.

It can Stunt your Lab’s Growth


As your lab grows, so will its responsibilities and expected output. In order to keep up with growth initiatives you may need to increase your production, and repurposing time once dedicated to labeling is one way to do that. The expansion of technology is also bound to have an effect on your lab and its growth. At this point technology is no longer in favor of manual processes since they are difficult to track and leave room for error. By implementing automation or reaching out to an outsourcing partner who can handle the labeling, tracking and accuracy for you, your lab can focus on growing.

Downstream Automated Processes are Less Effective


When a label isn’t properly placed on a piece of labware and is inserted into automated equipment for processing or testing, issues can arise. Whether you are the manufacturer of this automated equipment, or the end user—you are likely to experience frustration in some way as a result of manually applied labels. Automation is meant to function automatically—and when all elements of complimentary components aren’t also handled with accuracy and consistency in mind (yep… we’re talking about barcode label application!), the entire automated process as a whole will experience less than optimal functionality and sample accessioning could be compromised.

Why do Labs Continue to Label By Hand?

After speaking with many labs, one of the most common reasons we have been provided with for continuing to hand label tubes and vials is that it’s how their lab has always done it. Many labs grow so quickly they never have time to reevaluate their labeling process or think about such a seemingly minor part of their process. Many labs simply view hand labeling as a non-issue, something not worth changing.

Another reason labs don’t seek out alternatives to hand labeling is because they aren’t aware of them. Since many labs don’t consider the duty of hand labeling to be much of an issue they don’t seek out alternatives and often never hear about them. Or, maybe they have heard of the alternatives, but haven’t sought out information on them and remain in the dark about the potential benefits of automation and outsourcing.

Lastly, we often hear from labs that adding automation is cost-prohibitive. Although the initial price tag on a label automation system can look intimidating, they have proven to deliver a speedy return on investment time and time again. If you still feel like investing in automation isn’t the right choice for your lab, outsourcing may be a more convenient and consistent option.

Learn 9 Ways You can Increase Efficiencies in the Lab

What Creates Change?

If so many labs don’t see hand labeling as an issue, why are others seeking alternatives? The most common reason labs reach out to us about labeling alternatives is company growth. When a company grows, so do their responsibilities and deliverables. In the case of many labs, this increased sense of responsibility creates a sense of urgency causing higher-ups to seek out ways they can improve throughput by reallocation of personnel, who might normally be labeling tubes or vials, to more productive and fulfilling tasks.

Automation vs. Outsourcing

Automation and outsourcing are the two alternative options to hand-labeling. Here we will go into detail about what exactly these two options are, what the options are within those categories, and where each alternative tends to work best.

What is Label Automation?

When it comes to labeling, automation is the process of using equipment to both print and apply barcode labels to products. In the healthcare industry, automation is commonly used for labeling tubes, vials, and/or microwell plates. When this type of equipment is used, human involvement is reduced, minimizing the opportunity for error. Since every lab is unique there are different types of automation equipment to meet specific needs.

What options are there for label automation?


Rarely are two pieces of label automation equipment the same, there are a great number of variables that make them different from one another. One of the major points of differentiation between automation equipment is the amount of human involvement required to run the equipment. On one end of the spectrum there are label applicators that require an operator to place labware in the designated part of the machine prior to labeling for each and every piece. On the other end there is equipment that will label thousands of pieces of labware at the press of a button and sort them directly in their respective trays or racks.

The reason behind the wide array of options is that no two labs have exactly the same processes, one lab may prefer to have a higher level of human involvement in their labeling process, while another lab may prefer to be able to press a button and return to labeled containers a few hours later. The amount of labware pieces to be labeled will also help dictate the complexity of automation.

What is Outsourcing?

Unlike automation, outsourcing doesn’t simply reduce the amount of time lab workers need to spend labeling vials, it completely eliminates it. When you make the decision to outsource, you choose to work with a partnering company who does the labware labeling for you. With outsourcing, the process becomes as simple as placing an order and using your pre-labeled containers as soon as they arrive. Depending on the service you choose, additional lab tasks may be offered as well. The major shortcoming of this option is that it is not a feasible labeling strategy for labs requiring variable data on demand, as the barcodes are applied to labware ahead of time.

labware labeling

Which is the Best Option?

Unless we wrote a different post for each individual lab whose employees find this blog, we would not be able to give a certain answer determining which of these options is best for you. Each alternative has its own set of pro’s and con’s to be interpreted differently by labs of different sizes, budgets and sample volumes. That said, there are some common pros and cons to each option, which we’ll discuss below.

When is Automation the best choice?


Automation works great for labs who want to keep labeling in house & dramatically improve throughput, but may not have the time or resources to make it work manually. The variety of automation equipment means there are offerings for labs of every size, budget and human involvement requirement.

Equipment that requires human involvement tends to be fairly compact and reasonably priced while offering increased speed and the ability to record time sensitive information. For these reasons, this type of equipment works best for labs that don’t have the space, budget, or throughput for large equipment or highly customized outsourcing packages, but still need to increase sample accuracy,  efficiency, and throughput. This type of equipment is also a great match for labs of any size with lower volumes or a high product mix of samples to process.   

More automated equipment offers accuracy, little to no human operation and the ability to record variable information at high speeds on a high volume of labware. In situations where a less automated machine might not be fast enough, or personnel are needed for more growth driven tasks this type of equipment offers a quicker and less involved solution. Equipment with greater automation capabilities tends to work best for larger labs with high throughput and little time to dedicate to labeling.

Although there are options for labs of all kinds, automation isn’t the best solution for every lab. In cases where labs are looking to remove labeling from their lab entirely or are seeking an option that is more consistent they may consider outsourcing instead.

When is Outsourcing the Best Choice?


Outsourcing your labeling can consolidate procurement and labeling into one step making preparing labware as simple as placing a single order. Many labs also greatly appreciate how customizable some outsourcing options are.

The type of labs that benefit most from outsourcing are labs that don’t require variable information to be incorporated onto labware. Since the marked labware is prepared ahead of time, on demand variable information such as dates and patient information are difficult to incorporate. This makes any lab of any size who doesn’t need to record variable information on labware, and is looking to take the time intensive task of labeling off of their employee’s hands, a great candidate for label outsourcing.

Alternative

Pro’s

Con’s

Who it’s Made For

Semi-Automatic Label Automation

- Reasonable Price

- Compact

- Able to record time sensitive info

- Adaptable to many tube or vial sizes and shapes

- Faster than manual labelling

- Not as fast as other alternatives

- Requires an operator

Smaller labs who have limited space, low volume of tubes and vials to label and a limited budget.

Labs who need their label solution to work twice as fast as manual labeling and prefer to have a certain degree of human involvement in their processes.

Fully Automatic Label Automation

- Capable of labeling large volumes of product

- Easy to run

- Minimal human involvement

- Very fast

- Often capable of recording time sensitive info

- Very Large

- Expensive

Larger labs who have the budget for a large investment, sufficient space, and a high enough volume of tubes and vials to necessitate labeling equipment of this type.

Labs who have a high volume of samples to process and research related tasks to perform, leaving little time for labeling.

Outsourcing

- Completely eliminates labeling from the lab

- Consolidates procurement and labeling into one task

- Customizable

- Only capable of recording sequential information

Any size lab who does not need to record variable information.

Labs who have a high volume of samples to process and research related tasks to perform, leaving little time for labeling.

Labs who don’t have the space for in house labeling or automation equipment. As well as storage space for labels and inks.

Labs who want to forego in-house labeling

How much does Automation Cost?

Automation equipment is not one size fits all, therefore it can be more difficult to estimate the pricing on this type of equipment than one might think. Here at Computype we view automation as not just equipment, but an overall solution, thus, we ensure each solution is tailored to work specifically for each lab. With this in mind, we are going to take a look at some price estimates of Computype’s automation offerings and the value they will offer your lab in return for the initial cost.

PR100i with Tube ProTube-Pro

What is a Tube-Pro?


The semi-automatic offering made available by Computype is called the Tube-Pro. The Tube-Pro is very user friendly, all the operator has to do to label a tube or vial is place it in the nest, tap the button and remove the labeled tube or vial from the nest before replacing it with another. The nests are interchangeable and are intended to be used with specific sizes of tubes and vials, so if your lab uses a variety of labware sizes you might need multiple nests. The Tube-Pro also comes standard with a Light Curtain for improved safety and ergonomics.

How Much Does it Cost?


On average, the machine itself starts at $35,000, but that price will vary depending on additional features your lab may need such as additional nests, modifications, or services.

How is it Valuable to my Lab?


The Tube-Pro offers fast, accurate, adaptable and compact labeling to labs who require variable or static data to be printed on their tubes and vials. Compared to manual labeling, the tube-pro is capable of accurately placing labels at least twice as fast. When your lab makes the switch from manual to semi-automated, your increased speed and efficiency open up opportunities for ROI. The reduced effort required to run the Tube-Pro can also reduce the number of staff required to perform labeling, reducing the likelihood of workplace injury and allowing for prioritization of research related tasks. In addition to allowing for more time to be dedicated to research, saved space can be reallocated to more useful purposes.

Flex-Tube Pro

What is a Flex-Tube Pro?


Flex TVF + Tube ProLarger labs with more space and enough volume where even semi-automatic labeling might feel like a lot of work, tend to benefit more from a fully automated system such as Computype’s Flex Tube-Pro. The system is very user friendly, simply grab a package of up to 2,000 tubes or vials, toss them in the hopper, press the on button and return in two hours—or less depending on the amount of tubes or vials you placed in the hopper—to find labeled tubes. Only one size and shape of container can be run through the Flex Tube-Pro at a time, but it can be easily adjusted to label a different size prior to the next run.

While your employees are working, the Flex-Tube Pro will be automatically orienting and labeling tubes or vials ensuring accuracy and improving efficiency. The Flex-Tube Pro is also easy to integrate with additional automation equipment, such as racking automation, giving your lab room to continue streamlining and optimizing functionality.

How Much Does it Cost?


Similar to the Tube-Pro multiple options are available to accommodate multiple tube and vial sizes. Due to the pricing of additional parts and modifications pricing tends to vary from lab to lab. What can be said is that the price of this equipment is typically starts around $88,000.

How is it Valuable to my Lab?


Fast, accurate, adaptable labeling with little to no human involvement is all available with the Flex Tube-Pro. Lab Technicians can remain focused on their research rather than mundane chores increasing both the quality and quantity of specimens your lab can process. Many of our customers have seen a return on investment within 6-12 months due to the increased speed and throughput levels from using the Flex-Tube Pro.

Download Our Healthcare Automation Brochure

Micro-well Plate Labelers

Automatic Microwell Plate LabelerWhat are Computype’s Options?


We offer several semi-automatic micro-well plate labeling options. Depending on the needs of your lab we have labelers capable of automatically rotating and adjusting the height of plates for accurate placement on up to 4 sides in under ten seconds, and labelers that allow for manual rotation and adjustment of plates. All of the options are able to be integrated into existing systems using your current software making for an easy transition, or they can run as standalone systems. They are able to accommodate a variety of label sizes and scan labels prior to placement to ensure accuracy and readability.

How Much do they Cost?


Depending on the system you choose and what features you require the cost of our micro-well labeling systems vary greatly. Our most basic model starts around $20,000, if any modifications or additional features are needed the price will increase.

How is a Micro-well Plate Labeler Valuable to my Lab?


All of these systems are capable of simultaneously printing and applying labels at competitive speeds for maximum efficiency. The integrated scanner prevents misprints guaranteeing readable barcodes to eliminate waste and halts in downstream automation. Ease of integration also further reduces wasted time during implementation.

View our Automatic Plate Labeling Brochure

How much does Outsourcing Cost?

It’s almost impossible to give a clear and concise answer when someone asks how much it costs to outsource labware because it depends on a variety of factors. Every single lab is different, and as an outsourcing partner, Computype feels it’s our responsibility to ensure each and every customer receives a service tailored to meet their specific needs with our Ready Labware Services.

How Your Lab’s Processes Will Affect Cost


Your processes will determine your needs when it comes to your labware and labeling solution. In order to accommodate your practices, you and your outsourcing partner will need to collaborate in creating a solution tailored to your needs.

What do you Need Labeled?


One of the first things to consider is what kind of labware you need labeled. Is your lab only handling glass vials? Or do you work with both glass and plastic vials? Do you use micro-well plates in your lab? Material, size and type of labware all factor into the price, just as they would if you purchased them directly from a supplier.

What Happens in Your Lab?


Will tubes and vials be cryogenically frozen? Soaked in DMSO? Handled by robots? We need to know these things in order to ensure the labeling technology we provide will stand up to your processes.

Computype offers three different labeling strategies to accommodate labs in need of different solutions: pressure sensitive, direct mark and ceramic labels. The three vary in their permanence, applications and price point. Pressure sensitive being our least permanent and most cost effective option and ceramic being our most permanent and largest monetary investment option.

Want to learn more about marking technology? Check out our article >

We offer all three options because in some cases permanence is extremely important, and in others not so much. On one hand a lab might throw out all of their samples immediately after testing, while on the other hand, a lab may receive a lot of value from having their labels withstand a variety of chemicals, extreme temperatures and sharp robot grippers over the course of a few decades.   

How do You Want to Receive Your Labeled Labware?


With Ready Labware Services you have several options when it comes to how your labware is prepared when it arrives at your lab. Computype offers tare weighing, kitting, sorting and capping services as well as several packaging options. For example, you get to decide whether your vials arrive sequentially numbered in individually packaged kits with their caps on, or if you just want one bag full of tubes and another full of caps.

When it comes to packaging there are several options that will affect price. Packaging materials, type of packaging, inclusion of inserts, number of containers and more are all able to be decided by the lab so they can feel confident their product is arriving safely at their door, and according to their usage specifications.

What Else?


Our goal is to get your lab team working on the important tasks they were trained for rather than repetitive preparatory duties.

In our effort to remove tedious tasks from the lab we have added tare weighing to our list of services. Since we’re already preparing and labeling your tubes and vials, we might as well weigh them for you. We will send a report with our results leaving one less job for your technicians.

Tare weighing services are available for both glass and plastic labware and all labeling methods, however, glass with direct mark or ceramic labels is recommended for the most accurate results. Manufacturing of plastic labware is typically less consistent than the manufacturing of glass leading to greater variance in weight between pieces. The adhesives in pressure sensitive labels are also easily affected by environmental factors such as humidity which can lead to changes in weight over time. If your lab plans on using plastic and/or pressure sensitive labeled labware these are important factors to keep in mind when discussing a tare weighing plan.

If your lab is working closely with DNA you may need to ensure your tubes and vials are being prepared in a nase-free environment. Computype offers labeling in a designated area that follows nase-free standard practices as part of our Ready Labware Services program so even DNA testing labware can be outsourced.

Find out How Outsourcing Your Labeling Can Improve Costs and Efficiencies

What is the value of outsourcing?

Since estimating cost is difficult without first understanding the context of your lab’s specific needs, let’s look at outsourcing through the lens of the value it provides your lab.

You Can Save Time & Eliminate Busywork


Eliminating labeling from your lab can save your team time and keep them focused on the true purpose of their job. Outsourcing with RLS offers even further time efficiency through the ability to outsource kitting, sorting, capping and tare-weighing.

You Can Ensure Quality


When you purchase pre-labeled lab-ware from a trusted supplier you can be confident your lab-ware is accurately labeled and prepared to your standards right out of the box.

You Can Save Space


Your lab will no longer require a labeling room or station, no more printers and no more machines, instead you can place an order and receive your labeled or barcoded labware ready to use.

You Can Consolidate Suppliers


With Ready Labware Services you can procure your labware and your labels in one order. You don’t have to worry about calling up one place for vials, another for plates and yet another for labels, with RLS you only need to reach out to Computype. Consolidating labeling with labware procurement also ensures you will never run out of one before the other.

Although it’s difficult to pin down a price range for outsourcing, the value it can offer is hard to ignore. Before you make a final decision on outsourcing, it’s a good idea to assess your current processes, recognize your needs, find areas of improvement, and research your options.

Both label outsourcing and automation are practical options to improve both the accuracy and efficiency associated with container tracking within the lab. At this point in time implementing a fast and efficient labeling strategy that aligns with further automated processes is key for industry growth. Consider your labs current labeling strategy, what challenges it may be creating for your lab and which alternative strategy best addresses those challenges. If you would like to learn more about what Computype can do for your lab, reach out to our team today.

Read our case study to find out how Ready Labware Services helped a large  repository streamline their processes >

Jeff Denton

Based in Ohio, USA, Jeff Denton is Computype’s Senior Product Manager for the READY Labware Services portfolio. He has been in the barcoding industry for 15 years, and has ample experience in procurement and product management. Contact Jeff to learn more about our READY Labware Services outsourced barcoding program and our labware identification capabilities.