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Ask Slashdot: Automatically Logging Non-Computerized Equipment Use?

timothy posted about a year ago | from the bar-codes-and-magnets dept.

Science 130

First time accepted submitter Defenestrar writes "I've recently taken a job at a large state university where I manage the laboratories for a couple of departments. We have a good system to pro-rate costs for shared use of big ticket items, but don't have anything in place for small to medium expense pieces which don't require software control (i.e. AD user authentication logs). It is much more efficient to designate a common room for things like water purifiers and centrifuges, but log books have a history of poor compliance. Also, abuse or neglect of communal property has been an issue in the past (similar to the tragedy of the commons).

Do any of you know of good automatic systems to record user/group equipment usage which would allow for easy data processing down the line (i.e. I don't want to go through webcam archives). Systems which promote accountability and care are a bonus, but for safety reasons we don't want the room's door locked (i.e. no pin/badged access). Most of these systems also require continuous power — so electrical interlocks are not a good option either.

I call on you, my fellow Slashdotters, to do your best and get quickly sidetracked while still including the occasional gem in the comments."

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Internal billing is dumb (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46397641)

Just stick a RFID timeclock in the room and key it to your door badges. You just need to know who was in there and for how long. Sure there are ways to game this (leaving it unattended in operation etc) but they still have to come back for results.

Re:Internal billing is dumb (2)

Spamalope (91802) | about a year ago | (#46398105)

The problem is the management structure leading to internal billing sounding like a good idea! Flat rate the costs unless they're really significant and you can't gauge who the users are. Make the flat rate based on 'reserved' units. i.e. a portion of the resources have 'priority' access for a dept. based on the amount the dept. allocated to the budget. They are still shared, but the sponsoring dept. has priority access. Infrequent users use the 'free' equipment or any 'reserved' unit not currently in use. Frequent users can fund additional 'sponsored' units if they need more. While imperfect, it's better than treating each bit of equipment like a rent-way rental.

The AC's idea of an RFID timeclock in the room is great if you must internally bill. A crude measure of usage should work if your office politics aren't toxic. If you really have problems with equipment abuse, you can use a webcam and review it only if there is unreported damage. Review the footage only with a managers approval with public knowledge every time it happens (with penalties for snooping) and you'll make junior NSA drama less likely.

Still, internal billing is very expensive operationally.

Re:Internal billing is dumb (1)

Marxist Hacker 42 (638312) | about a year ago | (#46399569)

And if you don't have badges, use a bluetooth sniffer, and require registered phones. In this day and age, everybody, including students, are carrying around an RFID tag with them at all times anyway.

Why not badging of the doors ? (2)

SirGeek (120712) | about a year ago | (#46397647)

You can easily have the door "locked" from outside, But the room can be easily exited in the event of a power loss (crash bar on the inside door).

Re:Why not badging of the doors ? (1)

Joe_Dragon (2206452) | about a year ago | (#46397697)

What about getting in fast to stop something small from becoming an big issue. Also will need to filter out maintenance staff and others who go in but don't use the equipment.

Re:Why not badging of the doors ? (2)

Immerman (2627577) | about a year ago | (#46397777)

There's always low-security turnstiles - they don't really *block* anyone, just require you to be obviously disrespectful of it's purpose to get past.

Re:Why not badging of the doors ? (2)

Spazmania (174582) | about a year ago | (#46398757)

Maintenance staff already have badges and if they don't it's just another key on the ring. Filter out their codes when you audit the logs.

For emergencies: use maglocked doors and include a big red button by the badge reader that both cuts power to the lock (releasing the door) and sets off an alarm ('cause it's an emergency, right?)

Re:Why not badging of the doors ? (1)

rjstanford (69735) | about a year ago | (#46399959)

Badging in a door adds approximately half a second. What precisely are you envisioning that would be fine if stopped in 1 minute (aggressive timespan of notification to someone outside the room to them arriving and taking an action) but complete shite if stopped in 1 minute 1/2 second?

Re:Why not badging of the doors ? (1)

marcosdumay (620877) | about a year ago | (#46400657)

Half a second is a bit too little time for:

"Where's my badge? Oh it's on my neck", take it out of the neck (because I don't have the standard height those doors assume), badge it, "Sorry, Dave, I can't allow you to go in", "Hey, is anybody here allowed in?", "Wait, who was it reserved for anyway?", "Oh, Joe's reserved it until 4 PM. Where's him?", "Seems to be in a meeting, I'm calling him"...

Re:Why not badging of the doors ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46400711)

Badging in a door adds approximately half a second. What precisely are you envisioning

He's envisioning what usually happens:
*beep* FAIL
*beep* FAIL
*beep* FAIL
*beep* FAIL
"oh, I had a second RFID card in range. That'd do it."
*beep* click

Re:Why not badging of the doors ? (4, Interesting)

hawguy (1600213) | about a year ago | (#46397749)

You can easily have the door "locked" from outside, But the room can be easily exited in the event of a power loss (crash bar on the inside door).

And if the safety issue is that people on the outside need to get in the room, just put in a big red "Press button to unlock door in case off emergency" button that sets off an alarm (or calls campus security and/or EMS services) while unlocking the door so if someone needs to get in the room in an emergency, they can.

If the equipment is hazardous enough that even trained users might need help, then having a lock on the door that only lets authorized personnel in the room is probably a good idea.

Re:Why not badging of the doors ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398043)

Badge the door into the room. Install RF tags on equipments and have a RD ID scanner outside of door. The RF ID scanner is logged for inventory purpose and not tied to access control. If you don't want to have badges for room, install cameras that are activated by the RFID. The honored system doesn't work, so you'll have to automate it

Now you can narrow down who are the likely suspects that have the equipment and for how long.

Re:Why not badging of the doors ? (1)

Hotawa Hawk-eye (976755) | about a year ago | (#46399341)

Don't lock the door to the room. Lock the doors to the cabinets that contain the equipment, like mailboxes at the post office, in such a way that the person unlocking the door is logged (badges or PIN or something similar.) If someone wants a piece of equipment they unlock the cabinet door, extract the equipment, use it, and put it back. Or they get the equipment out, close the door, and unlock the door again to return it.

Put a small window in the doors so you can easily see if the equipment is present and if it's not the last person to unlock the door either has the equipment or is responsible for explaining where it is or what happened to it.

Re:Why not badging of the doors ? (1)

mlts (1038732) | about a year ago | (#46399941)

I have seen that on some server rooms. No badge, and need to exit? Crash bar on the inside door which sounds an alarm for 10 seconds, but will open the door no matter what. This is a decent way for a very sensitive area to check who is in and who isn't, although there are always tailgaters, but some security is better than nothing.

Random spot checks (1)

WillAdams (45638) | about a year ago | (#46397649)

Failure to have filled out that one is beginning to use the equipment in the log book is grounds for immediate dismissal.

Re:Random spot checks (1)

Joe_Dragon (2206452) | about a year ago | (#46397715)

Seems over the top even more so when the school can lose alot over getting rid of an student over a small paper work mess-up.

Re:Random spot checks (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398167)

You start to wonder if schools exists for teaching students, or if students exists for paying schools. You seems to subscribe to the latter.

Re:Random spot checks (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398689)

You seem to have it backwards. If a school treated students solely as a source of income, they would do everything they can to not get rid of the student, except for the few that cost more than others (e.g. seriously breaking equipment, or using something esoteric that costs a lot to maintain). If the students are there to learn, then any student that interfered with others learning, for example by not following policies that allow equipment to be easily but safely accessible to students, they would be shown the door. Unfortunately in the real world, schools going down either path have to be really careful about getting rid of students because of liability issues.

Re:Random spot checks (2)

Anrego (830717) | about a year ago | (#46399321)

The "off with their head" method doesn't work because there is always some annoying thing that a company is trying to eliminate and no one wants to work in environment with a huge list of trivial shit that gets them immediately fired.

As to how I'd fix the problem. Have time on the equipment scheduled in advance. Periodic surveillance video spot checks on unbooked spots to make sure no one is sneaking in. Internal billing or whatever you are doing based on the schedule. It's kinda like a log book, but different!

If you go this route, it's important to determine what the penalty is for violators. This is important, because you probably can't just off with their head, and a stern talking to probably won't cut it for repeat offenders. Billing teams caught using the equipment outside of schedule at a higher rate or doing this indirectly by assuming they were there for the entire contiguous unbooked block might work.

Easy Solution (1)

Archangel Michael (180766) | about a year ago | (#46397655)

Locked doors. Swipe Card Entrance and choosing which equipment you'll be using. Swipe card to leave. Log time. If that is too hard/complicated then do not prorate the equipment based on usage, but on availability. Every dpt that uses the equipment gets charged a small part of the equipment's costs, including operating and maintenance costs and don't use any logs at all. Sometimes the cost of compliance is more than the actual costs you're looking to recover.

It isn't rocket science.

Re:Easy Solution (1)

Zalbik (308903) | about a year ago | (#46398169)

Locked doors. Swipe Card Entrance and choosing which equipment you'll be using. Swipe card to leave.

FFS, at least RTFS:

but for safety reasons we don't want the room's door locked (i.e. no pin/badged access)

It isn't rocket science.

Re:Easy Solution (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398207)

I've seen several machine shops set up that way in different departments. Every group given access pays a share of maintenance/repair/upgrade costs. Larger ones even included a staff member or two that could full time help people as they came in. Smaller ones just had a person part time keep things working. If a specific person abuses the shop, or worse, represents a safety hazard, they can have their access pulled. Many places require approval before use, which can be anywhere from a 5 minute talk to a designated person to find out how much you've used such equipment before, to a more formalized, hands on demonstration of using the equipment for a couple common tasks in front of that person.

As far as how to restrict access, I've seen little to now problems with log and/or checkout sheets. A simple policy that just requires some one with a backbone to actually make sure people follow through with. This depends a bit though on how many people are involved and what range, as the two extremes are the hardest to deal with: a new, younger person not properly shown what to do, and an older, higher up person with too much clout to be bossed around. Nonetheless, a webcam and a cheap computer recording who is in there at what time is enough to go back and check for people not following policy (e.g. not filling out log sheet, or using certain equipment after hours without a second person around). And a mechanical lock on cabinets and doors with keys giving out to the right people can help.

The main thing being combated is laziness, people not taking the effort to follow simple policy or use equipment the right way. You just have to make sure the people running it are not lazy too. If you have problems with people continuing to use equipment after being told not to and/or something like a mechanical lock being bypassed, you have much worse organizational and employee issues that more tech is not going to solve.

swipe to exit is a fire code violation (1)

SuperBanana (662181) | about a year ago | (#46398443)

" Swipe card to leave." To enforce this requires using a locking mechanism works in both directions, like a magnetic plate lock. In order to maintain security in a power failure, you need battery backup for the plate lock. In order to maintain fire code, you need to have a tie-in with the building fire system, among other things. It's really not that simple.

Re:swipe to exit is a fire code violation (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398739)

Or just threaten to charge them for using the equipment all day if they forget to swipe on the way out and can't easily prove they left earlier (which sympathetically could be made easier by having a camera to check when they left manually).

Yes.. (5, Informative)

Lumpy (12016) | about a year ago | (#46397659)

You hire someone to check it in and out. Honestly unless you put RFID tags on everything and then force them to be passed through a reader before use, you can not automate that stuff.

I can read the future! (3, Insightful)

s.petry (762400) | about a year ago | (#46397913)

I was about to post this same thing, but in a different way.

As an Oracle of the Bordland Delphi, I look into my magical book of syntax. I breath deeply the fumes of the mighty Pascalious Flowerus. Your future is very clear. I see a person, at a desk with a book. No wait! Two books!. The person sitting asks people for identification, and validates this against one book. If their name is found, they ask them to sign in to the other book. There is more! The desk sits sideways, so this person not only controls who enters the room, but also asks those leaving to sign out.

This will be as it must be due to your mighty constraints of continual lightning and desire to have doors without locks!

Re:I can read the future! (1)

Lumpy (12016) | about a year ago | (#46399541)

Two books..... GENIUS!

Re:I can read the future! (1)

s.petry (762400) | about a year ago | (#46400389)

I was attempting to give the satire a bit of historical significance.. I wonder how many will grasp the completeness

Re:I can read the future! (1)

zlives (2009072) | about a year ago | (#46400797)

but what about the pearly gates err...doors

Re:I can read the future! (1)

s.petry (762400) | about a year ago | (#46400895)

The Oracles of Delphi had no such book or belief, which was the historically significant part of the satire. Come now, the first sentence should have made that obvious.

Re:Yes.. (2)

i.r.id10t (595143) | about a year ago | (#46397933)

Yup, borrow some old tech from your campus library (barcode scanner, db backend) and "check out" the equipment just like they'd check out a book. Check with your campus financial aid department about putting in for a couple of workstudy positions (aka financial aid bs job) to do the actual checking in/out. For equipment that has parts that all go together (like a camera - camera, batteries, driver disc, manual, memory card or two) make a check sheet, laminate it, and attach to item or to the case the item should be in.

This is what we do in my department (academic technologies) to let instructors check out dv cameras, still cameras, webcams, high quality headphone/mic set ups, classroom clickers, laptops, etc.

Re:Yes.. (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about a year ago | (#46400545)

OP said this is not an option. The equipment is large and requires continuous power. It stays in the room, it isn't "checked out".

Re:Yes.. (2)

Nightwraith (180411) | about a year ago | (#46397963)

You hire someone to check it in and out.

Wish I had mod points for a 5-digit uid reply which should have been obvious to the OP.

As mentioned below, surely there can be a work-study position funded for an inventory clerk. I'm sure there are already people being paid to check-in/check-out books & videos at the library or equipment at the gym/fitness center.

Re:Yes.. (1)

njnnja (2833511) | about a year ago | (#46398677)

This, plus the check-in person records the overall condition of the equipment when they sign it out and when they return it to try to reduce "excessive handling." Even if you don't make the interdepartmental charges a function of the condition, the peer pressure of knowing it's being recorded can be pretty effective, and if you are hiring someone to keep the log, you might as well have them look at the equipment too. Maybe even a couple of polite signs that remind people to return equipment in the same condition that they want to receive it in next time they use it.

FWS/students (1)

mindcandy (1252124) | about a year ago | (#46399007)

Call your student employment office and post N/20 jobs .. where N is the number of hours/week the lab is open.
FWS students can work 20hrs/wk according to their visa, but it must be an on-campus job. As such, there are tons of students needing a job.

Re:FWS/students (1)

Lumpy (12016) | about a year ago | (#46399555)

Yes they can. It's called adding that job as a part of "work-study" and give it a credit hour value.

Blue Light Special (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46397663)

Calling on all fellow slashdotters to heed this. Beta is dead!

RFID? (2)

txoof (553270) | about a year ago | (#46397701)

Adding RFID tags to equipment and encouraging people to swipe it out as it is used might be a good idea. But short of adding a supply clerk or using a badge system I don't see many other options. Maybe there's some work-study budget for a freshman to sit in the lab and check out equipment?

I heard on Freakonomics [freakonomics.com] about putting up web cams and paying someone in a far-off land to ensure hand-washing compliance. Perhaps a system like that might work.

yes RFID (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46397863)

Tags on badges, proximity detectors on devices. As long as the badge is near, it is being logged as near. Anything of a sufficiently short duration is logged but not billed. Anything of sufficient duration to use the device (you'd know this far better than i) gets logged and billed.

Its crude, as you may not guarantee to catch all use, and if they figure it out they may just not wear their badges. But if you cannot restrict access to the devices, either by locking the room or installing card readers on the devices themselves to give access to the controls, then crude is your best bet short of paying someone to be there and log all visitors (which would probably mean 5 someones to cover 24/7)

Re:yes RFID (1)

bwcbwc (601780) | about a year ago | (#46399685)

As an add-on to this, could you put covers on the control panels that only unlock after an RFID or badge swipe? That would help confirm use of a particular piece of equipment.

How many concurrent users do you typically get in the common room? If there are a lot of people that hang out waiting for equipment, or kibitzing, RFID would be less effective. But in that case, you would have witnesses as to who did a particular f-up. So I suspect you're dealing with small numbers of people in the room at any given time. This would make RFID more effective.

for electrical devices: (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46397705)

for electrical devices:

proximity sensor and electrical usage metering?

Re:for electrical devices: (1)

Immerman (2627577) | about a year ago | (#46397815)

Or a badge-swipe operated inline power switch, shouldn't be difficult to lock something onto the end of a normal power cord.

Re:for electrical devices: (1)

hawguy (1600213) | about a year ago | (#46398171)

Or a badge-swipe operated inline power switch, shouldn't be difficult to lock something onto the end of a normal power cord.

That won't meet his requirements:

Most of these systems also require continuous power — so electrical interlocks are not a good option either.

Re:for electrical devices: (1)

rjstanford (69735) | about a year ago | (#46400027)

How 'bout a beefy UPS? That allows the simple "continuous power" scenarios to be considered again, and is far cheaper than staffing a desk.

Re:for electrical devices: (1)

hawguy (1600213) | about a year ago | (#46400081)

How 'bout a beefy UPS? That allows the simple "continuous power" scenarios to be considered again, and is far cheaper than staffing a desk.

It's probably cheaper to pay an undergrad to staff a desk than to continually replace UPS batteries as they go through many repeated deep discharge cycles.

is this an advertisment? (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46397739)

why does "big ticket items" link to a page advertising a "high-resolution diffractometer" from the Rigaku Corporation?

and for that matter, "pin/badged access" links to a page from Stanley Security Solutions??

can I purchase sponsored links from slashdot summaries to promote my company's products??

Eletronic Log? (1)

deverox (177930) | about a year ago | (#46397743)

What about a system where when people use the system the swipe their badge on a logging device? Wouldnt be 100% perfect but would be better than paper as people are lazy. If the devices have stand alone monitors you could put make the power for the monitor (not the test equipment) tied to the badge reader?

Fixed equal costs for ALL users (1)

noshellswill (598066) | about a year ago | (#46397753)

Fixed upfront equal costs for all users; that's the easiest. Price access as would a golf, hunting or riding club, where  different  members  exercise different use-frequency, but the $10-k/year fee keeps out the riff-raff.

Consumed chemicals are treated just like drinks at the club-bar. Have one vending machine for Na-citrate buffer,  another for double-distilled water ... etcetc. 

Butt plugs (0)

interkin3tic (1469267) | about a year ago | (#46397767)

Mandatory butt plugs with RFID chips attached. It will log whose anus is near the equipment and at what times. It's the only way. Bonus: you can write the butt plugs off as a business expense.

In seriousness, it sounds like you are asking for a universal solution for many different bits of equipment made for different purposes by different manufacturers. I don't think that exists or we'd see it at all universities.

You could do what every department I'm familiar with does: simply charge the whole department.

You could also combine less effective methods: have a logbook and also have a webcam. Put many warning signs up saying the room/equipemnt is monitored, and that not signing in / cleaning up / maintaining will be reported. If your departments are anything like basically any department I've seen, it's the grunts that are doing it. The threat of reporting it to their boss and / or charging their boss, with the webcam, I suspect you'll see people behave without ever actually connecting the webcam to anything.

Turn gates (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46397789)

Put in full height turn gates similar what you have in the NYC subway. The type that allow free exit but you cant enter without a swipe.

Or key card access to systems contained inside rack like enclosures could also work, allowing users free access to rooms where the equipment is enclosed (cage for air breathing equipment, or glass if no need). Users can then open the container to whatever they need (clock starts running), and upon completion close the door to the equipment (clocks stops).

A coin op approach could work too. Users buy "day long" or "per hour" tickets/coins, and can "feed" the machine for access.

the cost to fill the hole? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398077)

the cost to fill the hole often exceeds the value of the things fall through it...........

It sounds like your total annual cost today.....is the 1/8FTE to take the paper logs and produce a chargeback report..............

I often see organizations create ferraris where kias would have been more appropriate.

How about an android pad so technicians can log into the device and log out - step two is put an analog switch from the pad to control the power switch to the high value device..........several hundred dollars and you are done!

But if you really want to over-engineer..........how about a laser security system like in mission impossible?


Gamification? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46397843)

Set up rfid tags/card readers, or just QR codes and a website. Provide bounties for most frequent users, user off peak hours, users who do the checkin/out most precisely, etc. Still, do not provide open usage reports and like that, they may discourage usage and encourage cheating. Maybe some integration to twitter/foursquare/whoknowswhat?


RFID?? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46397849)

You hire someone to check it in and out. Honestly unless you put RFID tags on everything and then force them to be passed through a reader before use, you can not automate that stuff.

Independence Day Images 2014 [blogspot.in]

Create a reservation system? (3, Informative)

MasterOfGoingFaster (922862) | about a year ago | (#46397861)

In cases like this, I create a resource in MS Exchange that can be reserved. Bill against that reservation. It isn't perfect, but after someone gets kicked off by someone who reserved it, they begin to use the system. This makes the guy that pays for usage the prefered user.

my experience: lab equipment is hard. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46397897)

Really the only way to manage that sort of equipment is to have a list of approved users, who know they're responsible for 10% of repair and maintenance costs. If you have a core facility with entry/exit, you can charge per hour in the facility

Swipe card or RFID card plus RFID tags (1)

Peter Simpson (112887) | about a year ago | (#46397943)

All RFID scheme would allow hands-full exit. A high power tag reader at the door would read the RFID badge and whatever equipment tags were being removed, tying equipment to the person who removed them. If yourfacility doesn't have RFID badges, just get some more RFID tags (different series number, perhaps) and stick 'em on the back of the users' ID badges..

Locating the equipment would still be an issue, though.

Home automation gear (1)

gurps_npc (621217) | about a year ago | (#46397991)

Use web-enabled wireless power switches (http://www.homedepot.com/p/Belkin-WeMo-Switch-F7C027fc/203536127?N=5yc1vZc7cj) for things that do not require constant power.

or RDIF badges for things that do require constant power.

You charge them based on how long they are within range of the badge detector.

Leadership failure (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46397993)

This is an utter failure of leadership. Whoever runs that place of yours should agree to split the cost and not have their staff worrying about this silly bullshit. If you work in a place that logs shared medium expense item use I suggest you find a better place to work.

From working in labs: addressing common solutions (5, Insightful)

SuperBanana (662181) | about a year ago | (#46397999)

To people who haven't worked in labs:

First off, generally the issue isn't tracking usage for the purposes of billing, or actual inventory (ie preventing people from walking off with things.) Most expensive stuff can and is plated and then cabled down to tables. The issue is often more tracking down who screwed up something so they're told not to do it again/given additional instruction, or their lab/PI is billed for the repair.

Why? All manner of equipment isn't cleaned after use, or toxic stuff is used on equipment that can't be cleaned of it easily, or equipment that is shared with other experiments that would be damaged by certain chemicals or contaminants. Centrifuges have the wrong rotors installed or mis-balanced loads, destroying the bearings or worse. Cryo vacuum traps don't get cleaned and can accumulate liquid gas and explode. Microscope objectives get damaged from impacting the slide or overuse of oil for immersion objectives. Microscope light sources get left on and burn out (some of them have lifetimes measured in hundreds or a few thousand hours.) The list goes on.

You can't always control power, because a number of instruments have long warm-up times before they stabilize, or require a bunch of parameters be entered on power-on.

Access control via keycards works until you discover that someone left the lab, dropped off their ID, security for some reason never cancelled their card, and now it's become a shared resource in the lab. This happens so often it's not funny, except in places that take access control VERY seriously, like hospitals that have research groups. Or people swipe others in.

It often really comes down to solving people problems with people, not technology...and having a culture of following procedures and policies. If someone can't follow procedure, lies, cheats, etc - they're a liability/danger to your lab/center/school reputation because they could be (and probably are) doing the same thing in their research. Why are you still employing/collaborating with them? Kick their ass to the curb.

That said, a lot of equipment manufacturers could recognize this need, and provide lockout contacts that can be interfaced with various access control and logging solutions.

Lastly, a reminder to Slashdotters: please think critically about the solutions you offer. If some random guy can think up a "solution", then chances are it's occurred to, and maybe even been tried by, someone with actual experience. At least recognize that possibility...

Re:From working in labs: addressing common solutio (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398263)

This is a totally different application / requirement versus cost allocation.

Stick a webcam in the room (a.k.a. a security camera) and review the recordings when something goes awry and nail the miscreants.

Jerks don't follow rules (1)

Chemisor (97276) | about a year ago | (#46398371)

Think about what you are asking here: you are trying to protect equipment from a bunch of jerks who don't follow the rules on how to properly take care of it, and are offering a solution that requires them to voluntarily log their actions. If they don't follow proper equipment maintenance rules, they aren't going to follow your logging rules either. If any voluntary system works for you, it will be when you have no jerks. If you have damaged equipement, then you have jerks. If you have jerks, you must have some sort of mandatory access control, such as signing out equipment using an id checked by the person in charge of the inventory. Anything less secure than this will be abused by jerks. After all, you don't expect them to sign out equipment they are planning to destroy, are you?

Re:Jerks don't follow rules (1)

Agent0013 (828350) | about a year ago | (#46398933)

It is just possible that someone accidentally damaged a piece of equipment. Fear can lead to putting it back and not telling anyone it was you. If you had logged it out in a book, then you are forced to confess as the evidence that you did it is quite plain. If someone truly wants to cheat and break equipment, then you are correct. I would think those people would be rather rare though in a lab situation.

Re:Jerks don't follow rules (1)

Obfuscant (592200) | about a year ago | (#46399687)

Think about what you are asking here: you are trying to protect equipment from a bunch of jerks who don't follow the rules on how to properly take care of it, and are offering a solution that requires them to voluntarily log their actions.

I don't think he's offering a solution, he's speaking about his experience doing this kind of thing and rather politely saying in long words what this list [craphound.com] summarizes when someone proposes a solution to spam.

Your post advocates a

(X) technical ( ) legislative ( ) market-based ( ) vigilante

approach to fighting abuse of shared resources. Your idea will not work. Here is why it won't work.

(X) Requires too much cooperation from abusers
(X) Requires immediate total cooperation from everybody at once

Specifically, your plan fails to account for

(X) Lack of centrally controlling authority for equipment
(X) Asshats


Re:Jerks don't follow rules (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46399765)

I wouldn't like to work for your company.

Re:From working in labs: addressing common solutio (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398405)

The submitter "asked slashdotters", he get what he paid for - a lot of uninformed opinion and not much of use. Why should this particular "ask slashdot" be given special consideration? It is not even a very interresting problem. keeping inventory and how to keep track of usage? seriously? A so-called place of high education should not have such basic issues. And I am sure there are plenty of different solutions already commonly in use in other schools, but he choose to ask slashdot...

Re:From working in labs: addressing common solutio (1)

rlwhite (219604) | about a year ago | (#46398651)

If that's the issue, it would be more efficient to focus on training up front, possibly with annual recertification. Maybe a cheap webcam to catch particularly heinous offenders. Access control isn't worth it under the constraints given.

Re:From working in labs: addressing common solutio (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46400943)

It often really comes down to solving people problems with people, not technology...and having a culture of following procedures and policies

That culture has a prerequisite: Acceptance that employees are human and will make mistakes

Good employees, following protocol, will still break things. The punishment should be little more than, "think of a way to prevent that"

Facility Online Manager (FOM) (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398009)

We use Facility Online Manager (FOM) [northwestern.edu] :

FOM can be used as a simple scheduler or as a complicated management system. It can be used in a single laboratory, or used to host all the facilities on campus. If you are interested in using FOM©, please contact FOM Networks at info@FOMNetworks.com.

Visit http://www.FOMNetworks.com/ to see the features of FOM©

FOM may be used (but not limited) to manage the following resources:

        Scanning probe microscope (SPM) including AFM, STM, MFM
        Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM)
        Optical Microscope, confocal microscopes
        Specimen preparation instruments
        Cleanroom instruments
        X-Ray Diffraction (XRD), X-ray spectrometer, Synchrotron Radiation Facility
        Spectroscopic instruments including Absorption, Fluorescence, X-ray, Flame, Visible, Ultraviolet, Infrared, Raman, NMR, Photoemission, Mossbauer, etc.

Shared doc for scheduling? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398019)

Shared Google spreadsheet to reserve your time on the device in question. Suck that time into a Db and there you go. Nothing complex about it, no reservation, no use.

Dear Slashdot, (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398027)

I recently schemed my way into a support job. Thing is, I have no clue what I'm doing! If you looked at my office, you'd probably see a Golden Retriever sitting in my chair with a goofy grin on his face and his tongue hanging out.

I call on you to solve my problem for me!


Parallel RFID system? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398045)

Large state universities tend to give their faculty/staff and students ID cards with RFID technology thrown in. Can you just set up your own simple badge reader system similar to those the security guys use to control door access? You could also just add a station to the security system but that might be tons of paperwork and not worth the effort. The plus of running your own system (one compatible with the cards) is that you can run your own reports without having to beg the security department. These could just be simple readers, not door access controls -- just put a reader next to the devices you want to meter.

That said, in general, chargeback systems can get pretty crazy. I understand wanting to know who's running NMRs all day or who is using all the stock chemicals, but I've seen IT organizations try to charge departments back for paper and toner usage...it's nuts unless you're a professional services firm and can bill it all to a customer.

Graduate students (1)

gordonb (720772) | about a year ago | (#46398091)

Cheap, available, and renewable.

Seriously. As a graduate student, I was responsible for managing and running a university-wide center for amino acid analysis and protein sequencing. As dedicated staff (namely me) used and maintained the equipment, it was not trashed by poorly-trained users. Proper protocols, sample preparation, calibration, and periodic assay of the standards were all assured.

Other solutions above will monitor access to the equipment, but that is a far cry from ensuring longevity of the equipment or accurate and reproducible results.

RFID the people (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398129)

If you can do both people and equipment, then you might be able to come up with a device named proximity counter. I am sure there is an existing case of this in a production/shipping env. Oddly enough the butt plug post seemed not too far off :) The only other question would be which side deals with counting? If it is the user's tag they would have to turn it in periodically.

Lemme See if I've Got This... (0)

CanHasDIY (1672858) | about a year ago | (#46398219)

So, you want a system that restricts access... but you don't want to restrict access. You want logging and tracking of users... but you don't want to have to read logs or tracking tables.

My suggestion? Find a new line of work, budro; you ain't cut out for this.

Re:Lemme See if I've Got This... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398795)

Actually, he's perfect for university work.

Accounting problems (1)

DaveGod (703167) | about a year ago | (#46398225)

Accounting problems generally use accounting solutions. The costs and hassle associated should be proportional to the costs needing to be allocated. Assuming the amount involved are unlikely to be material*, a good enough solution might be to simply apportion based on the number of persons likely to use the labs. This might actually make more sense than detailed usage tracking:

The "big ticket" items are presumably in heavy use and you can imagine a direct correlation (cause & effect, even) between usage and cost. In other words there is something approximating a "cost driver".

More general facilities, particularly if there isn't really "consumables" as such and taking hints from the posting that they are not near maximum capacity (no booking system), users generally benefit from the existence of the facilities rather than being proportionate to their use, there probably isn't a direct relationship between usage and costs. This is therefore more like overhead recovery and you're looking to apportion it using the most relevant method.

* It does occur to me that if this is a university budget every penny is fought over ridiculously so you might have a bit of a fight from anyone who thinks they are "losing out" (read: not winning) from any potential alternate approach. However this is true regardless of approach taken.

Penny wise and pound foolish? (2)

gstoddart (321705) | about a year ago | (#46398307)

So, your university wants to monetize the usage of the basic infrastructure in order to leverage your synergies by applying an undue burden of usage and accounting on the people to more accurately ensure they spend most of their time accounting for the 2 cents it cost to use the device? So you're going to make me waste an hour of my expensive and limited time to account for a few sheckles?

I had a PM once who wanted us to account for our time in 5 minute increments. Then he was surprised that 1 of every 5 minutes was recording what we did the last 4, despite us having told him that is exactly what would happen.

This sounds about as stupid and counter productive.

It sounds like cost recovery run amok, and usually marks the point at which an organization has been taken over by accountants who then work very hard to ensure the real work can't happen.

Sorry sir, I couldn't do any actual engineering/science/work because I was filling out my time sheets in triplicate, filling in the TPS reports, and updating the spreadsheet to indicate that I've done all of those things.

The 'solution' you think your finding is essentially creating a new kind of problem -- and that's one created from institutional stupidity.

My advice? Just don't do it.

Re:Penny wise and pound foolish? (1)

hubie (108345) | about a year ago | (#46398847)

This reminds me of Scott Adam's travel expense story that ends with "now find the umbrella!"

Micromanagement (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46399607)

The first big red flag here is "AD". This means they use Micro$oft which means they have no idea what is going on. So in order to justify their jobs and massive software budget, they come up with nonsense like this. It's just another symptom of the ineptitude and corruption endemic to academia now.

Re:Penny wise and pound foolish? (1)

Obfuscant (592200) | about a year ago | (#46399821)

So, your university wants to monetize the usage of the basic infrastructure in order to leverage your synergies by applying an undue burden of usage and accounting on the people to more accurately ensure they spend most of their time accounting for the 2 cents it cost to use the device?

Someone who damages a $500 centrifuge through abuse is costing everyone much more than $0.02. It is much better to stop such problems before they happen than to have to clean up afterwards. I mean, just imagine if we had been able to keep Eve from going swimming in the pond in Eden. Now we're stuck with never being able to get the smell off those fish.

So you're going to make me waste an hour

The only person making you waste an hour is you.

Re:Penny wise and pound foolish? (1)

joe_frisch (1366229) | about a year ago | (#46399961)

Agreed. Also its not just the time spent recording the use, its the DISTRACTION - its interrupting someone doing intellectual work to make them think about something else. It also has a negative morale effect - people really hate bean-counters.

I've seen it done (since this is a public forum I won't say where), and it has resulted in a dramatic reduction in morale and productivity.

Much better to just provide an overhead rate to cover the equipment costs. If your managers think "overhead' is bad, then they don't really understand what it is and you should hire better managers.

Re:Penny wise and pound foolish? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46400045)

This reminds me of a somewhat related conversation I once had with a senior VP of a large clothing retailer. They had recently implemented a policy of not allowing the clothing on mannequins to be sold. The sole reason for this was that the department that supplied the displays was "loosing" money because the clothing wasn't always being returned. Rather than sell that $100+ item, they shipped back to the warehouse, where it was likely sold on the discount rack of an outlet store.

I couldn't agree with you more. Unless the equipment in question is super expensive to own/run and has a line a mile long to use it, just give the lab managers a decent chunk of the budget and let them replace/add equipment as necessary. This can be difficult in practice, but has to better than creating some kind of computerized logging system for time spent with the microscope.

Re:Penny wise and pound foolish? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46400363)

So, your university wants to monetize the usage of the basic infrastructure

It's already monetized in the indirect funding string on the ledger. It's not a billing system. Depreciation is a factor in high-value equipment that must be tracked, just as effort reporting is required on federal grants. For F&A, the costs are prorated into an overhead rate. He didn't ask for a way to bill people for use, but just to track usage automatically instead of the traditional log book (because no one ever fills out the log book when they use equipment, so it's not a functional solution).

applying an undue burden of usage and accounting on the people to more accurately ensure they spend most of their time accounting for the 2 cents it cost to use the device

Burden? Most of their time? Could be as simple as a card swipe or personal pin code, just like using a photocopier.

You could at least read the question to know that it's not about baseline cost recovery (if you worked in academia, you'd know that's already factored into the lab's budget). It's about tracking down users who damage the device, managing time scheduling so people aren't "spending most of their time" hovering and waiting for an instrument to become available, and about tracking usage information so regular maintenance and equipment replacement procedures can be followed, all of which extend the efficiency of the lab.

It sounds like cost recovery run amok

It sounds like grant compliance and inventory management to me, which, you know, keeps the lights on, the lab in an operational state, and the postdocs (under)paid.

If you want to point to a particular system that is overelaborate or unduly burdensome, fine. But there needs to be some process for doing what OP asked or labs simply would not function. Right now, it's probably done by manual spot checks by someone whose time is expensive, discovering deferred maintenance and cleaning that was TOO deferred and now costs more, and total chaos without a reservation system. The lost time and money from not having an efficient system in place is clearly the bigger problem.

Re:Penny wise and pound foolish? (1)

chihowa (366380) | about a year ago | (#46401229)

Maintenance and depreciation need to accounted for so that equipment can be kept in good running condition (periodic service or service contracts) and replaced when needed. It's easy for a single lab's equipment to be managed because all of the costs come from a single lab(!). But the costs for shared instruments need to be spread over all of the users and getting the users to pony up that money is really hard.

In the end, filling out a logbook (or electronic equivalent) is bound to generate way fewer complaints than asking everyone to kick in money for support on equipment that they may or may not even use. The equipment needs to be paid for... the lab gear fairy doesn't drop it off for free.

Surveillance camera(s) (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398353)

The issue seems to be catching whoever is responsible for screwing up.

Probably the easiest way to do this would be to set up a motion triggered camera. Store the images on a server somewhere, and when the device gets messed up, you can go back through the recorded images to see who was responsible.

Some solution (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398425)

Automate web-cams then... webcam + face-recognition and you got some automatic system in "who the hell was there?" but it could make some people feeling un-easy

door locks (1)

Spazmania (174582) | about a year ago | (#46398655)

Not locking doors for "safety" reasons is absurd. If there's a genuine safety concern, you put a big red button near the badge reader which both releases the maglock and sets off an alarm.

QR codes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46398699)

Might I state the obvious, have their phone scan a QR code. It takes them to the website, they sign in once, a cookie remembers their password. one website per device , hosted on a RasberryPi. Its not like we need a 100 percent up time on this. Who doesn't have a phone? It imposes a 99 cost for an andriod device on your users, but most already have one. Lets add up the costs. A wireless access point $60 dollars, maybe a powerline network thing to connect it to the local swtich (optional) 35 bucks, as raspi with accessories $50, and some IT knowledge. Some patchcables and powerstrip $20. What 50 hours to learn basic TCP/IP and some sort of database for logging in with some html code. Hardware is cheap, the knowledge is the expensive part here. Or pay the local IT guy to set it up.
PS help me the post button doesn't work with my Chromiumn.

Logging non-computerized equipment use (1)

rob_hines (589958) | about a year ago | (#46398831)

I worked at a large university in the midwest for a long time and I understand what you're trying to accomplish, but there is no easy answer.

The best suggestion that I can offer is power logging. APC and a number of other solutions do can do continuous logging of power draw by port on some large PDUs. Since the current draw while idle is probably constant, then you can track usage by measuring the spikes in usage. If it were a mandate, or required by a grant, I would secure the PDU plugs into the wall sockets, make wall sockets unavailable, and secure the equipment plugs into the PDUs, so you know what device is plugged into the port, and you can graph its usage (maybe MRTG or something similar). Then when they have new equipment to install in the lab, they coordinate with tech staff.

Anyway, that's how I would do it.

Re:Logging non-computerized equipment use (1)

mindcandy (1252124) | about a year ago | (#46398947)

Have fun with the electrical inspector on that one .. but it's a good idea in theory.

Re:Logging non-computerized equipment use (1)

FlamerPope (218608) | about a year ago | (#46399213)

This only tracks the amount a device is used, not who is using it. If you want to prevent (or at least discourage) unclaimed use, you'd have to tie this to some sort of alert system. You'd probably have to write software that notices increased power draw, checks for a sign-up, and alerts someone if no one is signed up to use the device.

This could work; however, it would only serve to notice violations after the fact. With real-time monitoring, it could catch violations in progress, but someone would have to go, check the device, and yell at the offending party (which mightn't be reasonable). This system probably wouldn't prevent unclaimed use before it happens.

Not worth it .. (1)

mindcandy (1252124) | about a year ago | (#46398903)

There are tons of ways to do this .. problem is they will all cost more than what your'e trying to accomplish.
As I like to tell the bean counter types .. "what you seek is a technical solution to an administrative problem"
You have cameras, so that's your "abuse" answer .. you said you use logbooks but compliance is poor"
Solution: Random daily audits and punish any non-compliance.

Also, consider the cost for all the inter-departmental billing and your time in managing all this foolishness .. and ask "is this really worth it?".

Source? : I am security@ for a large .edu and I deal with a lot of this BS.

Re:Not worth it .. (2)

gb (8474) | about a year ago | (#46400333)

This is all true, and in particular, most Universities in my experience (based on a representative sample of directors of research, research support IT types and tame academics like myself at research intensive UK Universities) are incredibly bad at managing the inter-departmental billing. In my institution even for the big-ticket items like electron microscope, the technical support people spend more time chasing down bills than actually supporting users on the kit. Any cost-benefit analysis conducted by people who actually known how a lab works quickly shows the whole thing to be a complete waste of time and money.

Even for catching the idiot users who've broken something it can be difficult to make it pay. So you catch gormless post-doc whose just crashed a microscope stage into a sensitve detector, shorted out the HT and blown several boards in the back of the instrument. What happens - the HR people won't let you recover the costs from the salary (on the grounds that the post-doc would be destitute), the PI whose post-doc it was will refuse to pay because they've not been allowed to factor a charge for gormless post-docs into their grant application. Neither the host department nor the user's department will pay and will dispute liability (on the grounds that your system should have been interlocked against gormless users). You can ban said gormless post-doc from using the instrument again, but that's rather academic as right now nobody can use it all.

In more industrial/manufacturing evironments one can lock down the processes which reduces this sort of mayhem, but in academic research environments that's much harder. If you can keep the userbase small (10 users on any bit of kit) you can jsut about manage to sport the gormless ones before they do damafe, but when you go to larger userbases it just gets to be a hard problem.

It sounds like the micropayment problem. (1)

tlambert (566799) | about a year ago | (#46399065)

It sounds like the micropayment problem. Which no one but the telephone companies have been able to solve, at a flat rate additional cost to all transactions. Only lacking the network access requirement of telephone services, which are the means by which these transactions are recorded.

This is a pretty stupid goal, since if you could solve this problem, the magazine and newspaper industry would be beating down your door already, assuming you could get an audience stupid enough to not want predictable flat rate pricing. Good thing you have a monopoly where you can effectively force participation in an otherwise untenable micropayment system.

Seriously, though...

Just do a historical analysis of the wear rate of non-software access controlled items, assume that's going to be a lab cost, potentially using regression analysis to account for things which get worn at different rates, depending on correlation between class offerings (i.e. if none of the labs for the classes this quarter/semester require a centrifuge, you are probably not going to see wear on your centrifuge), and then roll that costing into the lab fee that everyone pays equally.

Yeah, you're going to get the occasional Calamity Jane/Wrong Way Corrigan who's going to be harder on the equipment than average, but given that you'll have accounted for this by historical records already in your possession, the costs will work out. This is exactly how real businesses deal with wear on capitol equipment.

Physical locks on devices? (1)

FlamerPope (218608) | about a year ago | (#46399097)

Hm. If you don't want to restrict access to the room, and don't want to restrict access to power, you'll have to restrict access to the machines themselves. You could apply a padlock to a moving part of the device (or perhaps a cage around its controls). You'd then store the keys in a central place and require people to sign out those keys when they want to use the device.

If you don't want to rely on people's good faith in signing things out, you could have someone else control the keys. This would require some manual work, but it could probably be done by a department secretary or someone else who's already at a desk - you wouldn't have to put someone in the room itself, and it would presumably be a very small part of their job.

You could conceivably store the keys in some sort of container with electronic access control as well, but that may be more trouble than it's worth.

If you have to do it, this is how I would do it (1)

infernalC (51228) | about a year ago | (#46400291)

Put bar code labels on everything with the asset identifiers.
Make a simple web app that authenticates to the LDAP server (you don't even have to write the auth part - Apache will handle that for you). The app will have two basic functions: start using asset and stop using asset.
They will touch one function or the other and enter the asset ID to generate a log entry.
Write an iOS native wrapper app for it using UIWebView and ZBar, to let them scan the asset tag using the camera on their phone.
Leave a $170 iPod touch in the lab for anyone who doesn't have an iPhone, so they don't feel left out.
If desired, automate sending nag messages to people who forgot to log stopping the use of something. Give them a way to enter corrections with a web form.
Provide your bean counters with a suitable report, preferably something that exports to their favorite bean counting app's format (I'd probably use the free Crystal Java Runtime just because I know it).

It can be made generic enough to get app store approval.


Cost to implement: 2 weeks of my time - negotiable.

There is an upside to logging stuff like this besides satisfying the beanies... you also have data to justify new purchase requests.

tl;dr of parent's post (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46400933)

Free iPod touches!

use a pressure pad in front of the device (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46400523)

You step on it to use it, you step off when you're finished.

Keeps you shoes clean too :-)

Aviation tool control solved this. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#46400919)

RFID-tag each piece of equipment. Door scanners can then log the personnel and hardware they leave with. I'm in heavy aviation maintenance and this is what we do, though in our case the tool control is more about the safety element (when a tool is missing, nothing leaves the hangar - could migrate to a critical flight system). It's not very expensive and highly effective.

Enforce it socially (2)

jpvlsmv (583001) | about a year ago | (#46400945)

Feel free to continue open access, but place a social stigma on using the equipment without recording your use.

For example, imagine that when you sit down at the desk, a light goes on that says "Thanks for logging in" (if you have). Now, tomorrow, you find three other people in the lab who don't have the sign lit. You say "Hey, I can see that you didn't sign in to indicate that you're using the system-- here, let me help you"

Another way to encourage self-policing from the users is to tie maintenance or upgrades to the logged use of the system. Say "Sorry, we're not going to upgrade that oscilloscope because nobody logs that they use it. We're going to spend grant money on the bench power supply in room 6B that has lots of log entries."

Put these two things together, and the people who care about using the equipment will help you keep the other users under control.


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