Solmek – KeyLAB

Investing in a management system designed specifically for geotechnical laboratories has helped a site investigation contractor to meet growing demand for accredited testing.

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.

This can become an issue for laboratories applying for 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 be deemed a ‘non-conformance’, as the laboratory manager cannot guarantee that results are controlled, and accreditation will not be given.

This was the challenge facing Stockton-on-Tees based geotechnical contractor Solmek and its in-house soil laboratory, when it first decided to apply for UKAS accreditation for some of its test procedures in 2012.

Solmek Technical Manager Ian Nicholson, who was laboratory manager at the time, explains: “Laboratory accreditation had become a ‘ticket to the game’, with more and more of our external clients demanding it [the laboratory also serves Solmek’s own investigations].

“Although Excel had served us well, it was clear we needed a laboratory management system to ensure we achieved accreditation and could continue to grow.”

Solmek decided to invest in KeyLAB, a geotechnical laboratory management system developed by Keynetix. KeyLAB uses one protected worksheet (so only the system administrator can change it) for inputting test results. Data can be exported in AGS format and into client-specific templates.

“KeyLAB makes everyone work off the same sheet, which is important for consistency, gives us more control and, because it creates a ‘virtual’ paper trail, everything is traceable,” Nicholson says.

“As KeyLAB is Excel-based, we were able retain the format of our worksheets and the look of our reports. It could also be implemented simply and quickly, with a shallow learning curve for the team.”

The investment paid off, with Solmek achieving accreditation for a suite of classification tests. It also helped ‘future-proof’ the laboratory operation, giving the ability to manage larger and more complex jobs more easily. And, when the decision was taken in 2016 to increase the number of accredited tests, the accreditation process was much more straightforward.

“Almost half of the laboratory’s work is for external clients and we needed to widen our accreditation, to meet their demands for more complex testing,” Nicholson explains. “Because we were using KeyLAB, it was relatively simple to apply our accredited procedures to triaxial, consolidation and compaction testing.”

Solmek was awarded its additional accreditation at the end of 2016 and Nicholson says the company is well placed to continue to grow, in particular by expanding its external client base.

“We have had to evolve to meet client demands over the past five years or so,” he says. “Not only has KeyLAB helped us to achieve accreditation but data entry is also much easier, saving huge amounts of time, particularly on larger jobs. Reports are also faster to produce – we can get them out in hours, rather than days.”

“KeyLAB also gives an overview across all the projects passing through the laboratory, enabling workflows to be controlled and ensuring clients are given the highest quality data every time, all the time.”