These days, everyone is glued to their phone; social media, Google, Reddit, daily news headlines—it’s all there, inside your pocket. Unfortunately, unwanted distractions in the lab can be detrimental to workflow, productivity, and even safety. So, instead of burying your head in your phone, make the most of it by using it for something practical. Your phone’s built-in camera paired with the right software could turn it into an integral piece of equipment in your lab.
Reading, generating, & printing barcodes
One of the best ways to use your cell phone in the lab is for sample identification, namely reading barcodes. For this to work, you’ll likely need an app with broad barcode scanning functionality, like NeoReader QR & Barcode Scanner. With these apps, you can scan different types of both 1D and 2D barcodes, so you’re not limited in what you can print (for a full breakdown of each type of barcode, click here). Once the settings on the app are appropriately adjusted, you can use your phone’s camera to scan barcodes as needed.
If your lab is new to barcode technology, phones are a great way to start due to their low cost and the flexibility to troubleshoot with different barcode types and apps. However, a barcode scanner might be necessary for better integration with a laboratory information management system (LIMS). For personnel using their phones as scanners, you’ll also want to buy heavy-duty phone cases; while manual dexterity is often necessary to work in a lab, there’s likely to be at least one or two occasions where someone drops their phone.
Not only can you read barcodes with your phone, but you can also generate them with any number of apps on Android or Apple. Most apps can generate both 1D and 2D barcodes, including QR codes. To print barcodes, some printer manufacturers provide specific apps to print directly from your phone. Zebra’s Print Station app is an example of this; you can pair your phone with your printer via Bluetooth, use document templates to generate on-screen prompts, and retrieve and display templates, all on your phone.
Reading & encoding passive RFID tags
Though radio-frequency identification (RFID) has been around since the 70s, it’s still considered something of a new technology in the workplace, especially the lab. An RFID system consists of a reader and transponder that can send out longwave signals. With these systems, multiple tags can be read simultaneously, without the need for a direct line of sight. One of the best things about RFID chips is that they’re rewritable: you can re-encode them and use them again and again.
There’s a long list of apps available that allow you to utilize your cell phone to read these RFID chips. However, there are a few hurdles to cross if you want to use this approach. For instance, your phone must be NFC-enabled. Though nearly all of today’s phones have this capability, generally, phones can only read NFC tags. NFC is a type of passive RFID technology, but to read this specific type of signal, the scanner must be relatively close to the tag, so you’ll never be able to take full advantage of the long-range scanning that comes with most advanced RFID systems. You’ll also need a dedicated scanner if you wish to utilize high frequency (HF) and ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID technology.
Most phone users are aware of the NFC capabilities of their phones, using them to tap and pay very much like chip-enabled credit cards at the retail store. However, most are unaware that, with the right app, one can encode onto NFC chips with custom information. One of the best programs is NFC Tagwriter, an app by NXP that’s free, available on both Android and Apple phones, and programmed by a company that also makes NFC chips.
With NFC and any other RFID-based system, it’s now possible to combine RFID inlays with labels, making it a more desirable option since most types of labels or tags can be outfitted with an inlay. This includes nearly all types of chemical-resistant, autoclave, and cryogenic labels. So, you can equip any label with RFID technology, and using your phone, you can scan and rewrite NFC chips as many times as you want.
Communication with LIMS & other cloud-based lab systems
One of the most important facets of cellphone technology is the ability to communicate with and monitor processes from a distance. This is especially important today, as COVID-19 has made work at the lab more unstable; in an emergency, all personnel in contact with a COVID-19-positive individual may have to isolate at home, leaving the lab and its equipment unattended for long periods of time.
Fortunately, nearly all new lab-based systems are cloud-based. Having a LIMS that’s accessible through your cell phone or tablet makes data analysis and interpretation possible no matter where you’re located, either at home or away on vacation. Combining a LIMS with an inventory tracking system and/or an equipment booking system also helps personnel schedule new tasks and coordinate among themselves regarding the utilization and purchasing of reagents and equipment. Lab monitoring systems also take advantage of cell phones by directly alerting users if there are any significant changes in the humidity levels or temperature of freezers and incubators.
Research & social media
Finally, the most common use for cell phones is searching websites and social media. In the lab, this could mean unwanted distractions, with so much available at the click of a button. Instead, the best practice is to use your phone to focus on what matters most: research. The Pubmed database has a mobile-friendly page, making it simple to search and identify relevant studies, and academic scientists have been networking via ResearchGate for the past several years. LinkedIn is a useful social media platform if the goal is to network with other scientists and commercial partners. All of them can eventually contribute to the advancement of your research.
Your phone doesn’t have to be something that gets locked away once you enter the lab, nor does it have to be an unfortunate distraction. Your phone can serve as an integral part of your workflow, depending on the need, comfort level, and capability. It can be used as equipment to read samples, generate new barcode identifiers, or even as a hub to communicate with personnel or new potential collaborators. Above all, it’s important that the decision to utilize it as a tool is based on the need to provide higher efficiency and productivity, and that alternatives be considered if that is not the case.
LabTAG by GA International is a leading manufacturer of high-performance specialty labels and a supplier of identification solutions used in research and medical labs as well as healthcare institutions.