ACE Laboratories began as a one-man band working out of a spare bedroom. Any lab work that was required to meet their formulation R&D assignments was done by renting lab space in the evenings. Since he was using rented lab space, Erick Sharp, ACE President & CEO was not able to take on certification work. That began to change when ACE moved into 5,000 square feet of its own lab and office space in Ravenna, Ohio. The company earned ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation and other key certifications and has grown to where it can offer a comprehensive list of physical, analytical, and construction testing as well as consulting services. Their lab space has expanded from its original 5,000 sq. ft. to almost 30,000 sq. ft. as they continue to add equipment to their portfolio.
Being ISO 17025 certified, ACE works with everyone from garage inventors to major companies looking for external validation for their customers who say, “We trust your data, but we need somebody else to say it too.” Customers can send ACE samples to test, or they have a mixer and can formulate the compound. Sometimes customers send ACE a finished part for them to break down for testing.
With growth, of course, comes complexity. The vast array of testing instruments – some with digital outputs, others not so much – created a labyrinth of data that needed to be sorted, analyzed, and reported. After exploring the (limited) options for a LIMS built with rubber and polymers in mind, ACE selected the Enterprise software platform from Alpha Technologies.
ACE has three Alpha Instruments – Premier RPA, MDR, and Mooney Viscometer. But they also utilize a wide range of instruments from OEMs other than Alpha. Their testing capabilities include Gas Chromatograph, Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), Flame Ion Detection, Mass Spectrometer, Dynamic Mechanical Analysis (DMA), RTM Friction Tester, Rubber Tensile Testing, Durometers, Controlled Ageing and Climate Testing, Comprehensive Materials Testing System (MTS), and Failure Analysis.
With so many different instruments and test methodologies, being applied to a growing number of rubber and polymer materials, trying to manage workflow was challenging. And at the end of the testing came the assembly of a report. Doug Foster, Director of Technical Services, was the person charged with crunching numbers, analyzing data, and preparing reports. “When we first started, we had about 5 different software programs supporting our different equipment,” recalls Foster. “We would have to download the files from all of the different outputs and then cross-reference the work order numbers and manually insert them into a report containing the different pieces. Now, the fact that everything is tied to Enterprise makes it easy to draw down all of the data, from one system. The amount of time we saved is insane! Plus, I can customize reports to put them in the format our customer wants.”
Enterprise Modules Provide Flexibility and Control to ACE’s Process
Using Enterprise as their LIMS, ACE can initiate testing assignments through the WorkOrder module. “We have all of our test methodologies and equipment in the system,” explains Jaden Slovensky, Laboratory Zone Coordinator. “We have our compound formulations in our Compound Management module that we’re loading into WorkOrder. ControlPlan helps automate our testing by generating a test plan to populate instrument queues. We’re using the notes feature for our customer requests. We’re extracting data from it. And we are continually connecting new instruments that we purchase to feed the data into Enterprise.”
Connecting a new instrument is pretty straightforward. Many instruments are already configured in the WorkBench module. All the technician needs to do is call one up from a menu and add it to the system. If it’s not already in the system, as long as there’s a SQL output, it’s just a matter of mapping the data. What’s more, as new equipment enters the field, many companies are writing their connection configurations and sharing those with Alpha. “We were trying to figure out how to connect Enterprise with our new CubeOne automated tensile tester from LabsCubed,” says Foster. “We thought we were going to need to bring in the Alpha team (which is pretty easy since they are nearby) but they told us that someone else already had it working, so now we’re ready to go on that.”
At each testing station, the WorkBench module gives the technicians and operators a consistent view of controls and routines, no matter what instrument they are controlling. They can sync the sample to be tested with the work order and have the results entered into Enterprise. However, in any lab, and ACE is no exception, some instruments are still perfectly adequate for the test, but are older than the digital age. (How many Mooney Viscometers built before 1980 are still in service around the world?) Manual data entry is still a fact of life. “We’ve created a lot of manual stations in our operations,” notes Slovensky. “We post up a laptop or tablet at a station where there’s a process with no actual SQL file being distributed, so we manually enter the data coming from the instrument. But even those portals we’ve created have been extremely beneficial because you’re entering it on the spot, not writing it down and transporting it back to a workstation. It makes the efficiency of the lab so much better.”
But, do ACE customers care about what software platform they are running in the background? “Actually, some definitely do,” says Sharp. “Alpha is still the premier instrument supplier for the industry, which means that they’re already using Alpha’s Enterprise system. They are used to seeing data presented in a certain way. So, our being able to provide data in a familiar format is very beneficial. What’s more, many of them have built their custom templates in Enterprise, so they can download our stuff into their template and tweak it around to create their custom reports.”
The Success of ACE Laboratories’ Partnership Model
ACE Laboratories has sought out working partnerships with multiple OEMs including Alpha Technologies. “We also have working relationships with Wallace Instruments, LabsCubed, and Ueshima Seisakusho,” explains Sharp. “There are multiple benefits to both sides. If prospective customer wants to see an instrument at work in the field, they can come here and see a demo and run some samples. Alpha doesn’t need to utilize that benefit much, because they are located very near our facility. But if they have a customer who wants to mill up a batch and then test it and compare it to a DMA, we can do that right here on the spot. For us, we have the opportunity to try out the newest and latest technologies. We get to be at the forefront of innovation.
“With Enterprise, we’ve enjoyed the benefit of working with the full Alpha team on pushing the limits of the system,” Sharp continues. “We have so many pieces of equipment that are not typical of a captive lab. We’re able to report, ‘Here’s what’s looking good… here’s where we have issues… here’s where we’ve created a workaround…’ And that kind of open-book exchange of information benefits both companies.”
In the next five years, ACE Laboratories plans to continue to expand its reach into the polymer sector. “Ideally, we want to tie everything back to the central LIMS,” says Sharp. “Enterprise will help keep the growth of the company centralized. I’m just glad we were able to put Enterprise into place when we were still on the smaller side. I see Enterprise as being a scalable data hub that can support our growth. And I trust the Alpha team to continue to work closely with us as we grow. For example, we are currently working with Alpha to create an external portal where a customer can upload work orders and then we can download them to run the tests they want, and then upload the data. That’s going to be a huge benefit as we continue to grow.”
“We really sought to engage with ACE, first in helping them include our instruments in their lab, and then by getting their lab to be more efficient from a process flow perspective and a data analysis perspective,” says Neil Friery, President of Alpha-Technologies. “And Alpha benefits from that relationship, too. As an independent lab, ACE is seeing a lot more than the standard run-of-the-mill tests we are used to seeing. They help us push the boundaries of our own instruments and systems. People are coming to ACE and saying, ‘I’m having this problem with this formulation.’ And Alpha is able to get involved, either from our application engineering team or our Enterprise software team, and work with ACE to work through it. We are both better companies from that interaction.”
“Alpha seems to be reinventing themselves and are back to driving innovation,” adds Sharp. “They have a good, robust support team there that can help push through it. From our end, we’re seeing a lot of that support is helping us grow. Sometimes it’s just a note for the next iteration. But sometimes it’s, ‘You can do that now… just go here, click here, and you’ve got it.’ That support is just a phone call away.”
About ACE Laboratories
ACE started as a one-man operation in Akron, Ohio in a 2,000-square-foot facility. It grew quickly as ACE found clients in need of a new laboratory that provided high-quality products and services to an ever-changing industry. In addition to research, development, testing, and consulting services, ACE partners with colleges and high schools to offer an inside look at a globally renowned laboratory, with the goal of helping to bring fresh people and ideas into the industry.
For more information contact:
6800 N Chestnut Street, Suite C
Ravenna, Ohio 44266