Laboratory equipment is a vital part of any hospital, research facility or physician office, and the need for maximizing high-performance clinical lab workstations is fundamental to laboratory workflow success.

By Joe Yearm

Today’s clinical labs in research facilities, hospitals and physicians’ offices need high-performance workstations to support the heavy, yet sensitive instruments they rely on to diagnose diseases or medical problems in patients.

 Various analyzers, such as blood, electrolyte, cell counter and biochemistry, require high-performance workstations that also provide space to perform critical tasks.

Because laboratory equipment is so sensitive and crucial to clinical diagnoses, the lab workstation must be of the highest quality.  There should be no wobbliness, and certainly no sense of weakness that could compromise test results. It’s also vital the workstation arrives undamaged and supports the weight of any type of equipment.

Additionally, the workbenches must be adaptable and tailored to fit the available lab space in accordance with changing clinical diagnostic applications and accessories.

While it can sometimes be an afterthought for healthcare managers in charge of diagnostic testing, workstations need to be carefully chosen and outfitted with the essential features and capabilities that fit the organization’s day-to-day workflow and testing operations.

To that end, there are six critical features to consider when choosing a workstation:  customizability; true quick ship capability; easy assembly; cost-effective price; strength and durability; and comprehensive, long-term warranty. Here’s a breakdown of each component:

1 Adjustability and Customizability

Due to the wide range of testing and processing requirements in healthcare, lab workstations often need to be customized to suit the specific application and available space.

Workstations often need to be reconfigured on a regular basis, due to changes in process or workflow. This is why you should consider an adjustable or customizable lab workstation, since it will increase  efficiency and cut costs. For example, some lab workstations can provide some adjustability in height, shelving, and ergonomics to accommodate the healthcare professionals using them. The laboratory configurations also can be changed easily and components can be reused — reducing cost and downtime.

However, many manufacturers offer only a limited number of off-the-shelf sizes, configurations, materials, colors, and design features, due to an unwillingness to carry more inventory or alter their production process.

More customizability is possible with a more modular approach that incorporates a choice of selected features, including materials such as stainless steel or phenolic resin. The manufacturer should also be able to incorporate customer sketches and supply 3D drawings. The design process should be customer-centric.

2 True Quick-Ship Capability

Due to workflow demand and logistics, hospitals and physician offices often need their clinical labs outfitted with workstations and equipment ready for use by certain priorities or deadlines. This is even more the case now, as healthcare providers seek to address

the ongoing  COVID-19 pandemic and the additional testing volumes it is causing.

While  many suppliers promise quick-ship capability, often their supplies are limited to stock on hand. That can mean as few as 5-10 lab tables in a limited number of standard sizes and configurations. Oftentimes, shipments with any level of modification or customization can require up to four months of lead time to produce and deliver.

Some producers, however, have organized their production to enable 3-5 business day lead times, regardless of size, color, configuration, or other customization. Ask about lead times before you place your order, so you can properly plan for the interim period when you don’t have the ideal lab workstation configuration.

3 Easy Assembly

Essentially all lab furniture, including workstations, will be shipped in various stages of disassembly and then need to be assembled onsite. This is not only to minimize freight cost, but also to fit through facility doors and hallways.

One often overlooked factor that should be considered is ease of assembly. If a piece of furniture, such as a lab workstation is difficult to assemble, due to its complexity, the likelihood of incorrect installation increases. This could result in problems or performance issues down the road, costing the enterprise budgetary dollars it was planning to save with the new workstation.

In the case of lab workstations, some involve the assembly of as many as 30-40 pieces, with bolts and fasteners of various sizes. In contrast, some workstations are ready to assemble in minutes, with only three parts and four bolts, since the frame is pre-assembled to the top, which simplifies the process, increasing efficiency and speeding return on investment.

4 Cost-Effective Price

When healthcare providers cost-effectively outfit their labs, they minimize capital outlay while still satisfying requirements like strength and customizability.

In this case, it is important to seek a supplier that has the financial flexibility to buy materials in bulk and pass along the discount, rather than order in small quantities at the highest rates.

When customization is necessary, it is best to select a supplier that: does not charge a premium for the service; supplies customization of standard products; and includes drawings, 3D modeling, and design changes at no additional cost. 

For example, a research team conducting a project at a prestigious research university purchased a number of workstations for centrifuge use, requiring vibration control. The lab table vendor accomodated  this request with non-standard features to reduce vibration and make the workstations more robust, including outfitting them with some bracing.

On a different project for another client, when the front frame of a workstation had to be hidden and recessed, this was done at no additional charge.

Its critical to work with providers that can meet your lab or project needs, instead of settling for off-the-shelf products that don’t quite meet your specfications.

5 Strength and Durability

Besides tools and supplies, clinical lab workstations must reliably support a variety of heavy equipment used to test, analyze, sterilize, separate, and preserve materials. This can include instruments such as autoclaves, sterilizers, and centrifuges, which can vibrate the workbench.

Other equipment may store samples and items in controlled environments, which can add to accumulated weight on the workstation.

Consequently, lab workstations must be strong enough to sustain significant weight, yet, each should be light enough to move with relative ease if a different arrangement of furniture and equipment is desired, such as  changes in testing workflows.

The challenge is typical lab workstations are constructed with hollow legs and channel frames, which by design, usually only hold about 750 lbs.  Because this amount could easily be surpassed by the accumulated weight of equipment, samples, and supplies, it is better to be proactive and select one with greater strength and durability.

Some lab workstations are constructed to reliably support up to 6,600 pounds, about eight times the typical capacity. Instead of hollow legs and channel frame construction, these utilize 0.25” welds on 2” tubing, which is much stronger and more durable.

Make sure you are clear to your provider the amount of weight that the workstation will need to support during the design/ordering process.

6 Comprehensive, Long-Term Warranty

Because labs involve a significant investment, any furniture or equipment ideally would have a complete warranty that would ensure trouble-free operation. However, many warranties for lab workstations are limited, and may last as few as five years for wood and metal frame products. In busy labs, tasked with high testing volumes, this may not be nearly enough. Any failure could not only jeopardize potentially life-and-death clinical outcomes, but also could result in costly damage to delicate equipment, as well as premature replacement, costs that may not be easily recouped.

It is best to select a supplier that will back up the long-term performance of its lab workstations with an unconditional 25-year warranty on every part. When every part is guaranteed in this straightforward manner, the healthcare provider and clinical diagnostic lab can be certain that it is designed for utmost reliability.

About the author

Joe Yearm has worked with the health care industry for 40 years. He is a sales rep at BenchPro, a Tecate, CA-based lab workstation manufacturer that sells to many Fortune 1000 companies.