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What is CMT Lab Productivity? How Labs Optimize Technician Time

Productivity is vital to the success of a construction materials testing (CMT) lab. But what does the word actually mean in a lab setting? In this post, we’ll look at how CMT labs break down productivity into something they can measure, and four ways they go about increasing it.

Believe it or not, multitasking is a myth.

The truth is, humans can only focus on one task at a time. When we try to do more than that, we make mistakes. This is because what we think of as multitasking (like driving and talking on the phone) is really just our brains rapidly switching focus back and forth between singular tasks. The resulting effort incurs “switching costs,” which actually make the process less efficient than focusing on one task. When we talk about productivity, then, we are talking about (1) how efficiently a person can do one thing at a time, and (2) how many things the person can get done in a given period of time.

So, what does that mean in the construction materials testing space?

What is CMT Lab Productivity?

In construction materials testing labs, productivity loosely refers to how efficiently a technician can perform a single task – and how many of those tasks the lab can complete in a given period of time. A lab’s success depends on productivity, so it’s understandable it would want to identify and remove from testing workflows anything that diminishes productivity. After all, every time a technician has to re-do a test or get sidetracked by a tedious, repetitive task is time not spent working on another project or strategic deliverable.

How Does a CMT Lab Measure Productivity?

Measuring productivity can be broken down into three basic metrics:

  1. The number of tasks a single technician can perform in one day
  2. The amount of administrator time spent on manual tasks
  3. The amount of data lost

Number of Single Technician Tasks Per Day

Productivity is largely about how much a lab technician can accomplish in one day. While the technician’s primary goal is to perform tests and record and report the results, there are a multitude of tasks involved in doing so. These supporting tasks include loading, stripping and identifying cylinders, sorting cylinders in the curing room, pulling and preparing the cylinders to be tested, and cleaning the machine after each test. There are other tests to prepare and perform, and, there are tests that need not be conducted at all! Those specimens must be correctly identified and discarded. Discarding unneeded specimens may not be billable time, but throwing out the wrong specimen can be an expensive proposition. So in this case, finding time to not test is important too.

Amount of Time Spent on Manual Tasks

Increasing productivity is also about saving administrators’ time from recording the data that a technician collects. Time spent transcribing data is time not spent analyzing that data for insights and completing other important strategic tasks.

Amount of Data Lost

Third, a lab’s productivity is directly tied to its data delivery. When data is lost, the lab has to re-trace steps, completely re-do a test or even conduct a core drill – major detriments to productivity.

In order to increase productivity, then, it stands to reason that a lab should increase the first metric and reduce both the second and third. Now, every lab is unique and will go about increasing productivity in its own way. But in our experience working with literally thousands of CMT labs, we’ve noticed that a few best practices do tend to crop up. Here are the four most common.

 4 Ways CMT Labs Increase Productivity

#1. Barcodes

Specimen identification is a significant time-suck for labs. Many lab technicians spend a lot of time deciphering a handwritten label on a specimen and matching that ID to the printout to determine parameters. Sometimes, the ID on the specimen will be smudged, illegible or incorrect. As a result, the technician might match the ID to the wrong specimen, mixing up results.

But not with barcodes – barcodes backed up by a full-featured specimen database. Barcodes allow technicians to get all the information they need by scanning the barcode, which automatically populates all the specific information needed on the machine’s screen. Not just specimen ID, but dimensional geometry, weights, desired test protocol, relationship to other specimens according to set, strength, age to break and more. The technicians know, then, exactly what they are testing, but even more so, additional information providing sufficient perspective to allow informed decisions.

Was this a valid break? Should additional tests be conducted? Can I throw away “hold” cylinders? Technicians can answer all of these questions and more, as well as process all of the information more effectively.

#2. Automatic Machines 

Many labs have replaced manually operated testing machines with automatic ones. Manual machines require skill, complete focus to operate and constant attendance at the machine – so there’s no opportunity to do other test-relevant work. Automatic machines, on the other hand, such as compression, flexural, tension or another specialty, allow you to run a test with the push of a button. This allows a single technician to run multiple machines or work on another task while the test is running.

Additionally, with an integrated CMT platform connecting the automatic machine to a cloud-based database, a technician can scan the barcode of a specimen and the machine will “know” what it’s testing. Because of this, the machine can automatically preload each specimen to ASTM specification. No calculations or adjustments are required. The technician can prepare the next sample or complete other tasks while the automatic machine preloads and runs the test.

#3. Machine “Sanity Checks”

Production testing can be long and tedious. Sometimes even the simplest process can break down due to operator fatigue.

Labs running an integrated platform also use their testing machines to conduct “sanity” checks before starting a test – helping pre-empt careless mistakes that would otherwise cost real money. This is when the machine issues a warning because something in the data doesn’t match. It will then prompt the technician to confirm before proceeding with the test. In general, there are two types of warnings:

  1. When the data is not typical. The technician must confirm in order to start the test.
  2. When the data is clearly wrong or egregious. The technician will not be able to start a test until the parameters or protocols are resolved.

Some examples of “sanity checks” include: when a specimen is outside its age to break, when a correction factor should be implemented, and when a specimen diameter is impossible (such as when a technician enters a 4.01-inch diameter as “401-inch” diameter).

#4. Automatic Data Collection

Paper files have a tendency to get wet, unreadable, lost, damaged, smudged or coffee-stained – clear barriers to improved productivity. Many labs can completely eliminate this issue by automating data collection and transfer processes with an integrated CMT platform. In this type of system, testing data is stored in a private, secure cloud-based database to which the testing machines are also connected. This means a technician no longer has to transfer data between the two, drastically cutting from one of the key areas of potential for human error.

After a test runs on a machine, results are automatically sent to the cloud database and other systems of record. Administrators don’t have to spend time transposing numbers, matching results with specimens, trying to read handwriting or investigating missing data.

And thanks to the database organization of test results, the unalterable information can be audited and then accessed by third party software programs for even more downstream data dissemination efficiency.

Conclusion

Labs that follow these practices will improve productivity. Again, every lab is unique, so the degree to which productivity can be affected will differ. But, on the whole, this stuff works.  And it’s because labs that make these changes are able to be less stressed about the small things that could go wrong and more focused on the task at hand. They can get more done in less time, avoiding the myriad delays and “switching costs” that add up in a testing workflow with more manually-driven tasks.

Want to improve productivity with a truly automated testing platform? ForneyVault® can help. Book a demo today.