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Ask Slashdot: Automatically Logging Non-Computerized Equipment Use? 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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Ask Slashdot: Automatically Logging Non-Computerized Equipment Use?

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  • 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).
    • 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.

      • 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.

      • 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?)

      • 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?

        • 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"...

    • by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @01:14PM (#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.

    • 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

      • by pepty ( 1976012 )
        Cabinets might be tricky - the equipment he mentioned tends to be permanently mounted to the wall (water purifiers) or too big to move (centrifuges). Might be able to lock up the rotors for the centrifuge (different rotors for different jobs; they get swapped in and out of centrifuges pretty often) ... but if it's a bio department rotors are typically stored in a refrigerator, which complicates things.
    • by mlts ( 1038732 )

      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.

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

    • 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.

    • by Anrego ( 830717 ) *

      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 differ

      • by pepty ( 1976012 )
        I think you've won the thread: two big ass surveillance cameras in the room would improve compliance in filling out the log and required user maintenance/cleaning quite nicely. Would only have to review footage when there were problems.
  • 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.

    • by Zalbik ( 308903 )

      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.

      • I didn't say keep the door locked from the inside. Only to gain entrance. Thanks for assuming something not implied.

        You could add a "BUZZ" sound/bell to people who are leaving to remind them to swipe their card first. IT isn't rocket science, but we try to make things overly complicated because we are geeks.

        KISS works.

    • " 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.
      • To enforce this requires using a locking mechanism works in both directions,

        No it doesn't. You're inferring something I didn't imply. Swipe to leave means that the swipe automatically opens the door. A push bar could be used to open in an emergency, which sounds/sets off the Emergency Alarms for the building. It doesn't require the door being locked on the inside at all.

        WHY must people make it more difficult than it really needs?

  • Yes.. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @01:08PM (#46397659) Homepage

    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.

    • by s.petry ( 762400 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @01:27PM (#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!

    • 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 ite

      • 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".
    • 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.

      • by Nethead ( 1563 )

        5 digit UIDs are far beyond caring about mod points.

        4 digit UIDs have unlimited mod points anyway.

        3 digit UIDs can take mod points away from users.

        2 digit UIDs.. well, there's only one still posting and he bought his so he gets jack shit.

        • by Wolfrider ( 856 )

          --You say what, now? I'm a little annoyed since my last mod points went from 15 to 10...

          • by Nethead ( 1563 )

            'twas a joke.

            I've seen mine go from 5 to 15 and back and forth. Never seen a 10 though.

    • by njnnja ( 2833511 )

      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 cond

    • 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.
      • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

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

      • by pepty ( 1976012 )
        That would get expensive, since grad students and postdocs tend to need access to equipment 24/7/365. Go check out a Chem department NMR room on Christmas Eve.
  • by txoof ( 553270 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @01:11PM (#46397701) Homepage

    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 [] 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.

    • At my uni some labs rely on a RFID badge system for charging for the access, others rely on a logsheet. Access is basically always restricted to authorized users by RFID badge.

      The logsheet works well if a lab has proper oversight, most labs I've seen that run like this have a fully booked reservation calendar anyway so they know pretty well who is using it at any time. People who don't show up for reserved time or don't log time properly get in trouble and may have access restricted or revoked if the prob

  • by Anonymous Coward

    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??

  • 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?

  • 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 d
  • by MasterOfGoingFaster ( 922862 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @01:23PM (#46397861) Homepage

    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.

    • Additionally, it discourages reserving an item "just in case", since the user will be billed whether they use the instrument or not.

  • 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.
  • Use web-enabled wireless power switches ( 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.

  • by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @01:32PM (#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...

    • 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

      • 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.
      • 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 [] 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


    • by rlwhite ( 219604 )

      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.

  • 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 t
  • 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.

  • 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

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @01:55PM (#46398307) Homepage

    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.

    • by hubie ( 108345 )
      This reminds me of Scott Adam's travel expense story that ends with "now find the umbrella!"
    • 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.

    • 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 th

    • by chihowa ( 366380 ) *

      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 compla

    • I don't think you fully understand how this type of setup works in a University - this type of billing setup is common in the labs and departmental machine shops at my uni. It's important to keep in mind that even within a department there are a number of fairly independent faculty members and their research groups who win grants to do their work and buy equipment with this grant money for their labs, and then there may be multiple departments within a single building. Overhead charged to research grants

    • to more accurately ensure they spend most of their time accounting for the 2 cents it cost to use the device?

      I assure you that there is very, very little scientific equipment which costs "2 cents to use." There's often both a substantial capital and operating expenditure. Depreciation isn't that bad on some stuff (a centrifuge, for example, I believe) but can be absurd on something like a new microscope system, as better optics and digital camera modules come out.

      Microscopes are probably the most comm

  • 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.

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

  • 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
    • by gb ( 8474 )

      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 p

  • 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

  • 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 requ

  • 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 iPo

  • by Anonymous Coward

    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.

  • by jpvlsmv ( 583001 ) on Tuesday March 04, 2014 @04:59PM (#46400945) Homepage Journal

    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.


  • For example: if it's a water-purifier; install a plastic barricade around the unit with a chained door and padlocks.

    Each department has a representative called a "gatekeeper" that holds the key to one of the padlocks. And there are TWO logbooks to be kept for all use of the equipment: one by the user, and one by the "gatekeeper" of their department.

    When someone wants to use one of the pieces of shared equipment, they have to go to their department's gatekeeper and get the key. A log entry mus

  • Employees log equipment in/out by scanning an RFID tag and entering their name or ID # on a terminal. A second RFID scanner in the doorway logs all instances of equipment moving in or out without an associated terminal entry together with a photo. Web cam photos only need to be reviewed for non-compliance.

  • Swipe cards can switch electrical power supplies as well as doors.

Today is the first day of the rest of your lossage.