Chromatographers: What’s Your Problem?

Jul 11, 2017
Volume 13, Issue 10, pg 10–13

Photo Credit: Radachynskyi Serhii/Shutterstock.comHow do you deal with problems that arise in the laboratory?


We all get into trouble in the laboratory. Whether it’s problems with sample preparation, instrument operation, data processing, or the separation itself, we all need help from time to time.

The skill is knowing where to go for help, and I guess this is what I have seen changing most during my career. In my own early years in the industry there was an expert to whom you could turn and they tended to specialize in a particular technique: high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), gas chromatography (GC), spectroscopy. They had honed their knowledge and skills through trial and error, learning from their predecessors, working with instrument manufacturers, and networking through conferences, meetings, and exhibitions. Whilst some of those in-house experts still exist, they are a much rarer breed these days.

Manufacturers were also better structured in the “early days” to provide post-sales support, with engineers, application specialists, trainers, and technical support people all employed to make your new (and not so new) purchases work like you wanted them to. Of course, all post-sales support is a cost of sale to manufacturers, and in these modern times where the instruments are designed to work “out of the box” and are somewhat commoditized, they can afford to reduce these costs because advanced equipment should be “plug and play”. Should be!

Of course, the biggest resource of them all, the internet, was non-existent when I started in chromatography and only in its infancy when I was really getting my teeth into the technique. There are now manufacturer‑specific resource pages, application notes, chat rooms, forums, journals, business publications, and pretty much everything you can imagine in terms of support for the laboratory worker.

So why do I encounter so many people with problems, who are unsure as to the cause let alone the cure? Why do I see so many people struggling with methods that are, to put it politely, suboptimal? Why are there so many instances where data quality is at best below par and at worst indefensible?

Let’s look at some recent statements that I’ve heard and see if we can draw some conclusions:

  • “We were recommended to try (solution X) by a colleague in the organics lab.”
  • “We found this suggestion on-line and thought we’d give it try.”
  • “This application note was written for matrix X and we thought it would work for our matrix.”
  • “We didn’t know what to try so we found an article on-line which suggested that parameter Y can be used to minimize variability.”
  • “We’ve tried everything that we can, so posted the problem on (forum X) and someone suggested that we try (solution Y).”

Can you spot a common theme? Whilst all of the above sources may be of some use, they are not qualified in terms of their validity. One does not know what experience or expertise has gone into making these recommendations. I see this use of unqualified resources very often and my feeling is that their use is increasing.

So what’s so bad about this if it provides a solution to the problem? My main concern is that even if the “fix” is successful, it leaves you wondering how and why the fix worked. Is this important?

Well, ask yourself the following question? Would you go ahead and try to fix a problem with your TV, washing machine, or car on the recommendation of a piece of information from the web or someone who claims to know about cars? For some of you the answer may be yes, in which case you are probably mechanically or electronically minded with some underlying skills or experience. For the vast majority of readers, I suspect that the answer is no.

This poses two questions: How did we get into the situation where self-help is often the only help available and what can we do the next time we encounter a problem?

I’ve already eluded to the answer to the first question. Instruments are designed to run, trouble-free, for a host of applications without an issue. You don’t need a manual to show you how to use a vacuum cleaner and analytical equipment is viewed in much the same light in modern times. “Plug and play” for the digital native generation. A tool which is a means to an end.

Most manufacturers will produce a number of application notes that indicate the analytical column and instrument settings for “indicative” separations over a diverse range of application areas, and of course you will get the instrument manual and sometimes, if you are lucky, an instructional DVD or post-installation training from the vendor’s engineer.
After that, you’re pretty much on your own.

What if you know little about the theory of chromatography, the chemistry of the analytes and chromatography column, or the settings that affect the various aspects of the separation? If you think this doesn’t happen in the modern analytical laboratory, I can absolutely assure you that it happens in many laboratories around the world and I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

Isn’t that what standard operating procedures (SOPs) and standard methods are for? Yes, but I also see many poor quality methods in use, where the main instrument parameters may be clearly stated, but the less obvious parameters may be completely omitted from the document or there is an assumption that there are certain “generic” parameters set and left well alone. 

Further, even if all the standard method parameters are correctly set, what happens if there is an issue with the chromatography or the data quality doesn’t meet the method requirements? Where do you go for help?

This leads us on to the answer to the second question and takes us into the murky world of the modern-day analytical laboratory. As I have pointed out numerous times within this column (1–3), the problem lies with the changing industry paradigm as we move from chromatography as a complex measurement science and research tool, through to a tool used by a wide variety of end users to support their research aims. We are effectively in a state of flux as both the end user and vendor communities move from a highly complex technology that requires a deep understanding to operate at even a fundamental level, to an everyday “plug and play” tool. Our employers are firmly wedged between a rock and a hard place in this paradigm: wishing to increase analytical throughput often via the purchase of more instruments, being told by the vendors that the instrumentation is very robust and easy to operate, and wanting to pay a commensurate rate to operate all this extra equipment.

This is all very well as long as nothing goes wrong or there’s no need to improve analysis or develop new methods!

Where do you therefore go for help when faced with the unknown? Many companies have had the wisdom to retain an expert chromatographer on staff, so that is an obvious place to go for help. However, and it pains me to say this, there is a big difference between a chromatography expert and someone who has used chromatography for a period of time. The latter are increasingly being taken for the former, and this is dangerous for both the employer and employee.

Manufacturers do still offer a reasonable level of post-sales support, and of course their expertise is (or at least should be) qualified. However, it is rare that the vendor will want to get embroiled in solving more deep-rooted problems with your separations. They may even take the view that your business should have the level of knowledge and expertise to work through the problem—you shouldn’t be “struggling with the basics”, as they might see it!

Of course, the internet may give some guidance as to how your problems may be solved. There are certainly a lot of good teaching sites these days as well as the host of manufacturer and journal literature where one might find credible help. But please make sure it’s just that—credible.

Finally, there are many chromatographers who used to be employed by large organizations but who are now part of smaller organizations or who may even have made the brave step to set up as a consultant. Whilst your own organizations may provide support and expertise, if you do ever find yourself in a bind where internal expertise can’t provide a solution, I would urge you to seek out some of these folks for some sound and credible advice. A short amount of time with these folks can often solve a very intractable problem and save you a lot of heartache and your business a lot of time and money.

They say the best tradesmen, such as plumbers, come from recommendations from friends or acquaintances. Why should it be any different for experts in a different type of plumbing?

References

  1. Incognito, The Column 12(21), 11–13 (2016).
  2. Incognito, The Column 13(1), 18–20 (2017).
  3. Incognito, The Column 10(5), 9–10 (2014).

Contact author: Incognito
E-mail: [email protected]

lorem ipsum