One of the biggest drivers for the implementation and utilization of a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) in a lab is to increase productivity and effectiveness. While increasing productivity and effectiveness can be addressed in a number of ways within a LIMS, the ability of the LIMS to automate manual processes, procedures, and tasks is by far the largest source of these improvements. Listed below are 10 ways that LIMS can help automate your lab.
1. Laboratory Instrument Automation
Laboratory instrument automation, as discussed herein, is a deeper, more complex level of integration between your LIMS and your instrument system. Automating your laboratory instruments with your LIMS can be accomplished in a number of ways. Most LIMS have built-in instrument integration capabilities and there are 3rd party, LIMS vendor neutral, instrument integration software solutions available as well. Many LIMS also offer Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that can be used to extend the capabilities of instrument integration systems to implement very sophisticated instrument automation and integration solutions.
It is important to note that lab instrument automation with a LIMS can be implemented at different levels of complexity which will yield different levels of potential productivity and effectiveness improvements. These include (from lowest to highest):
- Simple one-way interface of a lab instrument to the LIMS via RS-232 or printer port
- Simple one-way interface of a lab instrument to the LIMS via a file transfer
- Simple two-way interface of the lab instrument system to/from the LIMS
- Complex two-way interface of the lab instrument system to/from the LIMS. These can include:
- Run/batch setup on the LIMS side
- QC batch setup (i.e. blanks, standards, duplicates, spikes, etc.)
- Automated instrument calibration and maintenance checking
- Automated analyst training record verification
- Inventory management and automated replenishment
- Automated decision making for approvals, retesting, etc.
- Full instrument control from within LIMS
- Standards and reagent management
- Automated reporting
2. Systems Integration and Automation
Like laboratory instrument automation, other laboratory and enterprise computerized systems can be integrated and automated via your LIMS. These are sometimes provided as add-ons to a LIMS, like a standardized SAP/QM interface for your LIMS. Frequently, however, these integration and automations are implemented utilizing the LIMS’ API and some custom programming. Some of the laboratory and enterprise systems that are often automated include:
- Laboratory information systems – ELN, LES, SDMS, etc.
- Manufacturing systems – ERP, MES, PLM, MRPII, etc.
- Visualization and data mining systems
- Learning management systems
- Inventory management & control systems
- Calibration and Maintenance
- Data reporting systems
- Business and accounting systems
3. Laboratory Workflow Automation
One of the highest productivity enhancing automations that a LIMS provides is the ability to automate the workflow and work processes of your lab. Initially, LIMS workflow capabilities were limited and required extensive programming to accomplish. Today, many LIMS have markedly improved their workflow automation engines and functionality to the point that complex logic and automations can be accomplished via a simple “drag and drop”, graphical interface. Additionally, even finer bench level control can be attained today through the use of integrated Laboratory Execution Systems (LES) that are available with several leading LIMS solutions.
It is critical to point out, however, that the true key to realizing solid, large efficiency gains through laboratory workflow automation is performing a thorough workflow analysis and then harmonizing and optimizing your workflows. Remember, it is also critical to gain consensus among your stakeholders before finalizing your optimized workflows. Automating your workflows once they have been optimized and agreed upon by all concerned parties will yield great efficiency gains.
4. Automated Calculations
Manually performing calculations is not only an inefficient use of a scientist’s time, it also is a prime source for the introduction of error into your science. Automating calculations is generally accomplished utilized a LIMS’ calculation subsystem. For very complex equations most LIMS can utilize their APIs to call programs or other constructs that have automated the complex calculation. Additionally, many LIMS provide interfaces to more robust calculation and analysis tools such as SAS or Quality Analyst.
5. Automated Testing Limits
In quality control laboratories analyses automated in your LIMS will likely have testing limits associated with them. These will normally include Pass, Fail, and Warn testing limits. Automating your testing limits analysis such that Pass, Fail, or Warnstatuses are assigned, as appropriate, will remove a large quantity of low value, manual work from your staff. You will even be able to utilize trends and other statistical analyses to even further automate your test result status assignments within your LIMS.
6. Automated Review/Approval
It is a standard practice in QA/QC labs that all results need to be reviewed and approved before they released to the information consumer. A LIMS will enable you to set up Review/Approve by exception only. In other words, only if a test result gets assigned a Warn or Fail status will it need to be reviewed and approved. Removing the need to review all results is a tremendous efficiency improving capability. Additionally, even the process for reviewing and approving results that require it will be greatly improved since all the other test results, sample information, batch information, etc. will be available for the reviewer through the LIMS. When using a LIMS, there is no need to go to different instruments or instrument systems to review raw results, spectra, or other test results since everything would be either within the LIMS or interfaced to it.
7. Automated Reporting
The generation and delivery of reports is one of the main sources of inefficiency and ineffectiveness in a laboratory. By automating the generation and delivery of your reports within your LIMS, you will remove those inefficiencies completely and enable your scientists to do more science. Reports that can be automated include:
- Certificate of analysis
- Trend and statistical analysis reports
- Daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports
- Conditional reports which are reports that are required based upon a condition (i.e. the pH is trending upwards)
- Management and lab administrative reports
8. Automated Training
Laboratories that adhere to GxP rules and standards need to ensure that their scientists and analysts are up to date on the training for procedures and tests that they are performing. Manually maintaining these records as well as the scheduling of the training will cause large inefficiencies in your lab organization. Automating the training schedules and records within your LIMS will enable you to realize substantial gains in efficiency and effectiveness. Moreover, taking the further step of automating your training to include courses, videos, etc. through your LIMS and integrating the verification of training and retraining into your automated workflows training records will really provide significant gains.
9. Automated Instrument Calibration & Maintenance
Just like automated training, automating your instrument calibration and maintenance will remove significant amounts of inefficient, nonvalue-added, manual work from your laboratory staff. In addition to the time savings, by using these capabilities within your LIMS, you will also be able to leverage the up-to-date calibration and maintenance records to verify that your instruments and equipment are ready for use when making work assignments. Seamlessly being able to access and leverage this information will yield great efficiency gains for your lab.
10. Automated Product Regrading
If your business generates batches of product that need to conform to customer specifications, you will be able to improve your efficiency by automating the regrading of batches that fall outside of the manufacturing specifications. In other words, automating Product Regrading will allow you to effortlessly determine which customers a batch with specifications outside of the manufacturing specifications can be sold. This determination is made based on the specific customer’s requirements and specifications. No need to manually compare your results to a plethora of customer specifications. The LIMS will tell you which customers could buy the batch.
In what ways have you automated your Lab?