The Past, Present, and Future of Lab Balances

A conversation with Dirk Ahlbrecht from Sartorius about where lab balance technology is headed in the 21st century

Sartorius
Nov 2, 2020

Lab balances might sit more in the background for biologists, especially relative to chemists and physicists, but their importance should not be underestimated. Aside from being absolutely integral to pharmacological studies and pharmaceutical development, accurate balance performance is essential to the consistent development and production of excipients, buffers, medias, and other solutions that keep life science labs running smoothly day after day.

Dirk Ahlbrecht is the Head of Product Management Lab Weighing at Sartorius Lab Products and Services. Currently based in Göttingen, Germany, Ahlbrecht has over 30 years of experience in the lab balance business and has held various positions in service, sales, marketing, and product management during his tenure with Sartorius. Ahlbrecht and his team of product managers oversees the development and life-cycle-management of Sartorius’ global lab weighing portfolio.

What are your current priorities for improving balance technology?

“For a period roughly spanning the 1970s to the 1990s, we focused on expanding the technical capabilities of the instruments,” said Ahlbrecht. “But now, we have reached a plateau. Balances can provide measurements that are accurate to seven decimal points, and this has proven to be sufficient for most researcher needs. Nowadays, topics other than technical specifications have grown in importance, such as integrating balances into analytical workflows and processes.

Balances today need to align with user needs. “We want to make sure that an instrument fits into the standard operating procedure (SOP) of a user; the balance should behave in accordance with the user’s planning,” Ahlbrecht stressed. “In many situations, researchers have to work within the constraints and limitations of the instrument, and we wanted to flip the script and create something that could be modified and customized in order to integrate into a user’s SOP. We’re not limiting this to the manual workflow—what a scientist does with their hands. We also want to integrate our instruments into the full SOP, including the data workflow and any QA/QC elements.”

How do modern balances make life easier for scientists?

Scientists in different fields have different needs when it comes to balance technology. At the same time, there are a few applications that are relatively ubiquitous. Ahlbrecht brought up gravimetric dosing as an example: “Gravimetric dosing, especially in smaller research labs, entails measuring many different samples once or a few times each. This is much trickier than measuring one thing many times and it can result in errors.” Ahlbrecht wants his instruments to help streamline this process. “For example, we can have the doors open and close automatically or we can create more ergonomically amenable weighing pans to make it easier to place powder into differently shaped vessels.”

Environmental factors are a major concern when it comes to weighing accuracy. “An error is probably 80% environment and 20% instrument, so we created assistance systems that help scientists avoid environment-related mistakes,” said Ahlbrecht. “We offer education to inform users how measurements are affected by things like temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity. But we also went beyond and placed sensors in the instrument to not only measure environmental conditions, but automatically re-adjust the balance according to the readings. We want to make it so that scientists can focus on the important thing: taking the powder out on a scoop and then putting it into the container.”

Amidst all these sensors and readings, it is crucial that balances remain accessible and easy to use. Ahlbrecht emphasized that one of his main missions was to simplify the process. “I hate reading manuals. Whenever I buy something and I have to read the manual, I return it,” Ahlbrecht began. “We know that our instruments can do a lot and there are a lot of different configurations, so we have to design the user interface in a self-explanatory way. We want to make it similar to a cell phone or satellite navigation system where the buttons and icons are intuitive. We’re currently working with an app concept where different applications guide various functionalities, and we’ve received a lot of positive feedback from users regarding its simplicity. We also have a status center within our instruments that serves as a centralized troubleshooting and diagnostic dashboard so that our users can easily identify any technical or just obtain information about the current status of their balance.”

How is balance development advancing hand-in-hand with the scientific community?

It is more imperative than ever to make sure design goals align with user needs. “The last millennium was shaped by pushing technical limits, but today it is a different race,” Ahlbrecht said. One area of emphasis is customizability. “Because the emphasis is now in the software as opposed to the engineering, our users can configure their instruments based on the functionality they need. For example, for those in quality control, they can opt-in for software that helps with regulatory compliance: password management, data encryption and transmission, that sort of thing. But your average academic researcher won’t need this, so they can opt-out and not spend money on features they won’t use.”

Above all, Ahlbrecht stressed the importance of constant communication with scientists. “This is what we call ‘voice of customer.’ We have a system in place to regularly collect information and feedback even before we start development on something. We go and talk to users or do surveys to find out whether we are on the same wavelength, whether we are on the same page. We collect this information through various channels, including sales, service, and marketing. We even do joint product development with some of our clients if we identify a very specific need that has to be met. Ultimately, we want to take many responsibilities and challenges off the shoulders of scientists so that they can focus on what’s most important to them.”

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This article is brought to you by Sartorius. The Sartorius Group is a leading international partner of biopharmaceutical research and the industry. https://www.sartorius.com/