As a leader in barcode and labeling solutions, we are often asked “What are the different methods of barcoding microwell plates?” The short answer is that there are actually various approaches, and it all just depends on the environment, volume, and processes of your specific business. In this article, you will gain an outline of the pros and cons to a few different microwell plate labeling methods: labeling by hand, label automation, and outsourcing the barcoding of your microwell plates.
The different methods of barcoding microwell plates:
- Labeling by hand
- Label Automation
1. Labeling by hand
With low-volume applications, labeling microwell plates by hand is always an option. To accomplish this, you simply need either pre-printed label stock, or a printer, label stock materials, plus a workforce. In addition to low volume applications, this method of labeling is also suitable for lab operations that are inconsistent and do not require complete precision of placement or guaranteed consistency. To make things even simpler, if your barcode labeling process does not require variable information, labels can be pre-printed by your supplier and sent to you ready for immediate application.
If your lab is just starting up, it is possible your volumes are inconsistent and you are working to control costs; in that case, manual labeling of microwell plates could be the best solution for you. With this option, you are minimizing costs and keeping processes simple.
Additionally, if the information needed on your labels includes variable data such as date or lot codes, manual labeling may be the most efficient way for your lab to label microwell plates. In short, with manual labeling of microwell plates, flexibility is optimized; you can manually swap out label stock, utilize the same printer for other needs, and determine your batch size based on current project needs.
While manual labeling is commonly utilized in many functions of the healthcare space, there are drawbacks that are important to be aware of. Obviously, with manual labeling there is a human workforce involved; with this, comes inevitable inconsistencies and errors. Microwell plates are often homes to small samples, and the manual labeling process could be compromising the integrity of your samples and their respective information.
Additionally, if your lab makes the decision to label by hand, realize employees are then responsible for keeping inventory of all necessary materials like labels and ribbon, and maintaining a printer, which can be more costly if errors or inconsistencies are to occur. Labeling by hand can also pose other challenges as Standard Operating Procedure often requires employees to wear gloves, which labels are prone to sticking to and can make for inefficient labeling practices.
For some labs, the option to hand label microwell plates might not even be available because not all labels stand up to harsh chemicals. In these cases, direct marking would need to be done via either an in-house operation or outsourcing program. It is important to discuss the expectations of your barcodes with your supplier prior to settling on any labeling method.
2. Label Automation
Another option for barcoding your microwell plates is via label automation; label automation has become a more prevalent means of barcoding as it increases efficiencies in the lab. The most effective way we have found to automatically apply labels is through our Computype Plate Labeler.
This product suite offers efficiency and flexibility as it can be utilized as a standalone unit or can be easily integrated into a workflow system. The Computype Plate Labeler has a motorized rotational axis, allowing it to automatically label up to four sides of the plate in a matter of seconds based on the selection made by the operator through the interface panel.
Automation is important, as if your process utilizes other automatic workflows, precise label placement is important for later on, when the barcodes are automatically scanned for accurate identification. If barcodes are not precisely and correctly placed, the integrity of the samples can be compromised, creating the potential for backlogs. Automated microwell plate labeling is the most beneficial option for a few cases:
- High volume applications: With high volume applications, label automation can expedite the process and enable a higher throughput rate. This increases efficiency, and makes the labeling of your microwell plates part of your existing process.
- Larger automated processes: As mentioned above, automation is becoming more widely used in the healthcare industry. If you are already utilizing automatic processes or looking to move towards automation, many of these systems can be easily integrated, further promoting this shift, and ensuring consistent scan rates throughout your process.
- Label placement consistency is critical: This is common in healthcare, when human samples and specimens are being held in microwell plates. Conserving the integrity of a sample is always the priority, and label placement accuracy and consistency further promotes that initiative.
As with any method of labeling, label automation does have its drawbacks. Typically, this shift in process will include capital expenditure, although ROI can be easily justified. Additionally, although less space for manual labor is needed with the implementation of automation, you will need to plan for the real estate needed to house an automatic applicator within your lab. This is not necessarily a drawback, however it needs to be planned for.
Certain label and labware suppliers have outsourcing programs where they will take care of the procurement, and labeling of your microwell plates to accommodate your barcode and labeling specifications. This solution enables you to be completely hands-off when it comes to labeling, and leaves you to focus on more valuable laboratory processes.
Here at Computype, we offer READY Labware Services, a program in which we procure labware, determine the best method for identification based on your unique specifications, mark the plate, and then send them your way (or send them directly to your customer!). This is the ultimate option for time and labor savings. The READY Labware Service program removes the need to store supplies associated with labels, labeling, and labware.
As with all options, there are drawbacks. Although an outsourcing program provides flexibility, time, space, and manual labor savings, the option of outsourcing takes direct control over labeling away from your lab as you are not in-house to oversee the process. This is why it is important to work with a label manufacturer that you trust, and will collaborate with you to ensure they are accommodating to your specifications.
As you can see, there are various options for labeling of your microwell plates. Labeling by hand, integrating label automation into your lab, or outsourcing your labeling are all viable options, and could be beneficial options for your lab. Computype has the resources to accommodate all of these options, and can help you determine the best option to suit your goals and processes.