Is Excel Helping or Hindering your Geotechnical Laboratory Management and Information Management System?

The complexity of geotechnical testing means it does not fit the traditional Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) approach. As a result, there are very few software packages available for geotechnical work; laboratory managers often resort to either using a LIMS designed for other types of testing or, more often than not, run their entire operation on Excel spreadsheets.

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Excel: Powerful but limiting

In fact, our research has shown that almost all geotechnical laboratories use Excel and it is easy to see why: most staff have used it at one time or another, making the learning curve shallow, and companies see its implementation as ‘cost neutral’, as it comes as part of the Microsoft Office package. There is no denying that Excel is powerful and flexible: it is fairly easy to customise workbooks to record data and carry out calculations from tests. However, while Excel can work well for small laboratories, operations with more than three or four technicians may start to find that it creates more problems than it solves.

 

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Image: Ground Technology Services

 

Nothing is managed with Excel alone

Workflow is incredibly difficult to manage when using Excel – it is challenging for the laboratory manager to keep a handle on how many tests have been carried out; how many are left to do or how many hours of work are needed before the report can be sent out. In our experience, some laboratory managers will say they are either ‘very busy’ or ‘not very busy’ and will make a guess, based on their stress levels.

No version control

A key strength of Excel is flexibility but this can also be its weakness. Almost everyone believes they are an Excel expert and, by their very nature, engineers love to re-engineer. This means that, unless everything is password-protected, users are able to make changes to the set-up of worksheets, to calculations and to the way in which results are presented. While these changes are well-intended – to make things better, faster or easier – they can lead to multiple worksheets being used by different members of staff (each having their own work preferences). This potential loss of control means there is a very real risk of having mulitple versions of the truth, with clear issues for meeting client requirements, quality assurance and accreditation.

 

What if the main ‘developer’ leaves?

A massive problem with going down the ‘do it yourself’ route with an Excel-based LIMS is that it is usually created by a hobby developer who writes code to create macros in the worksheets. This can make the system difficult to maintain, particularly if the ‘developer’ leaves the business, as external support teams will struggle to work through a personal-coded system. Laboratory managers may find themselves spending a large amount of time and money resolving issues and, inevitably, they may have to ditch the system altogether.

 

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Webinar: Harnessing the power of Excel for your Laboratory – Register Today

 

Too many workbooks

Even the smallest projects may have 50 different tests, each with their own results sheet, creating a number of issues for Excel. Printing out each sheet (and sometimes having to combine them into a single pdf) becomes extremely time-consuming (even if someone has written a macro to handle the process); results sheets can easily be missed out; exporting data in a specific format (eg AGS data) is difficult and changing things like the job number or the project name cannot be done in ‘bulk’: every sheet has to be edited individually.

 

Accreditation becomes an issue

Laboratory accreditation has become a ‘ticket to the game’ and most geotechnical laboratories will have, or are working towards, accreditation. One of the key things the accreditation body will look for is a consistency in workflows, sample handling, testing processes, calculations and the presentation of results. If an Excel-based management system is being used, and individuals can make changes – to equations for example – then that will deemed a ‘non-conformance’, as the laboratory manager cannot guarantee that results are controlled, and accreditation will not be given.

 

DSC_8880cImage: Ground Technology Services

 

Harnessing the power of Excel with KeyLAB

Excel is clearly a great tool but its limitations will be quickly exposed as a laboratory grows. Unfortunately, by this point, a lot of time, money and effort will have been invested and the laboratory manager may believe the cost of switching to a new system utilizes their initial time investment. KeyLAB is the answer. It was developed specifically for geotechnical laboratories and integrates with Excel, allowing existing worksheets to be used (and hence maintaining intellectual property and competitive advantage). It also includes a set of standard worksheets that can be adapted to meet specific laboratory or client needs. As it is Excel-based, it can be implemented simply and quickly, with a shallow learning curve for staff.

i2 Analytical Ltd is one of Europe’s leading independent environmental testing companies, providing customers with a comprehensive range of analytical, monitoring and technical support services. KeyLAB allowed us to design our own worksheets, with assistance from the Keynetix team. “KeyLAB is evolving with new technology, which will help us meet our future aim of having a paperless system, one that is faster and reduces human error.” Terry Stafford – Geotechnical Manager – i2 Analytical. 

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KeyLAB uses one protected worksheet (so only the system administrator can change it) for inputting test results, outputting to one or more sheets and enables wholesale changes of project details, making client-specific reports easy to handle.

KeyLAB also allows an overview across all the projects passing through the laboratory, enabling workflows to be controlled and ensuring consistency in results, so clients are given the highest quality data every time, all the time.

Soil Engineering are one of the UK’s leading Geotechnical contractors with a proven capability in all elements of ground investigation and stabilization.  “Digitizing the ground investigation data journey, from collection in the field and in the laboratory to final delivery to clients, has transformed the speed, accuracy, consistency and reliability of information.” Ian Linton Geoservices Data Manager – Soil Engineering.  

Find out more by attending our free webinar:

Webinar: Harnessing the power of Excel for your Laboratory – Register Today

 

 
 

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