In the year 2020, many of us worked remotely from the lab as companies restricted access in accordance to government lockdown orders and out of concern for employee health and liability. This will continue in 2021 until vaccines are broadly distributed. Yet, the work still needs to be done: companies still need process data for quality and safety control; R&D departments still need data for new product development and process optimization (especially for pharmaceuticals related to the pandemic), etcetera.

Collecting data while miles away from the lab

As a lab rat, I was personally frustrated that I could not travel from my office in Pittsburgh to our lab in Boston to test ideas that I had for new techniques and materials analysis in new industries. In June I received a series of membranes with different catalytic electrode layers, and I wanted to determine the best way to collect X-ray diffraction (XRD) data to analyze these samples. It is hard to delegate the trial-and-error process of optimizing data collection strategies.

Fortunately, in 2018 Malvern Panalytical introduced a completely automated X-ray diffractometer which we have in our Boston lab. My colleague loaded a handful of samples into the automated sample changer and I was able to collect data from over 500 miles away, changing optics and measurement geometries as needed to figure out what we can do.

New and productive ways of remote operation

Remote operation of our instruments is not new. Products like the CubiX XRD and Mastersizer particle size analyzer have allowed remote operation for many years. But this type of automation gives new purpose to remote operation. MultiCore Optics for the Empyrean diffractometer began development in 2015. These optics provide complete automation of the incident- and diffracted-beam optical configurations. The diffractometer can be remotely reconfigured for many different measurements: powder diffraction, transmission diffraction, thin film grazing incidence diffraction, residual stress analysis, texture analysis, reflectometry, small angle X-ray scattering, and microdiffraction. A single on-site employee can load 48 samples into the automated sample changer, and then data collection can be programmed and controlled remotely. Each sample can be analyzed using a different method or a single sample can be analyzed using several methods. This later is particularly valuable when access to the lab is limited and the workflow of analysis might need to change. For example, SEM-EBSD used in a workflow might not be available with reduced staffing; so XRD pole figures could be used instead.

The Zetium X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer is another system with automation that makes remote operation more productive. Combined wavelength and energy dispersive cores give the Zetium unparalleled versatility, and the Virtual Analyst software guides decision making and can help a user operate the instrument from anywhere in the world. A single on-site employee can load up to 128 samples across a wide range of material types and the instrument can adjust measurement procedures for different samples from different processes. Automatic sample-type recognition and a dust removal system protects the spectrometer from inadvertent system contamination, providing peace of mind when operating the system remotely.

These capabilities have helped our application labs remain productive during various levels of pandemic lockdown. Seeing the value, we are excited about upcoming releases that will add automation and improved remote operation for other instruments in 2021.

Endless possibilities with laboratory automation

Automation is another way to maintain lab productivity during pandemic lockdowns or other extenuating circumstances. Our Process & Automation Solutions unit has developed a system that can pass samples between the Epsilon XRF and Aeris XRD, facilitating automated data collection using both techniques for every sample. The Aeris XRD is particularly easy to automate because of its unique external sample loading, which can receive samples fed from conveyor belts or robotic arms. 

The Aeris XRD, Epsilon XRF, and Zetium XRF are all operated by a single universal automation interface that allows flexible integration into a wide variety of workflows. The weak point in this automation solution is sample preparation and loading, which still requires an on-site worker. This challenge is readily solved by Malvern Panalytical’s Process & Automation Solutions unit, which has designed many completely automated laboratories. These automated labs integrate equipment from Malvern Panalytical and our partners to automate sample collection, preparation, measurement, and analysis using a broad combination of characterization tools. 

A cloud-based ‘control room’ to top it off

A final piece of the puzzle is fleet management – an instrument manager needs to be able to confirm the health and accuracy of all instruments under their responsibility, even if they are not able to inspect the instruments personally because of lockdown restrictions. The Malvern Panalytical Asset Manager software is now available to allow managers a view of the status of all XRF instruments connected to the company network, no matter where in the world they are located. Information includes operational statistics (hours used, hours idle), results of routine monitor measurements, and notification of upcoming or past-due calibration.

Remote work is most likely here to stay

Automation and remote operation of instruments will be highly beneficial in the era of remote work, whether this is imposed on us by pandemic situations or if it is a choice by companies that have found flexible work locations to be productive for their business. Malvern Panalytical and the Process & Automation Solutions unit are happy to help workers stay productive, no matter where in the world they log in from.

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