Over the last several years a new trend has begun to take shape in the laboratory informatics market. I’m talking about the emergence and rapid acceptance of Laboratory Executions Systems (LES) for use in quality control labs and other standardized testing environments like contract or environmental testing labs. Interestingly, LES solutions are often integrated to a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) as opposed to being implemented as a standalone solution. Why is this the case? What makes the LIMS/LES solution so powerful? But before going too far down the path of exploring the LIMS/LES solution, let’s take a step back and explore LES and LIMS solutions, individually.
Laboratory Execution Systems (LES)
A LES is a specialized laboratory informatics application that is derived from Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs). Sometimes called “Guided Execution Systems”, a LES is primarily designed to facilitate and enable bench level control of the science/work being performed by the technicians and analysts at the bench in your labs. That is, the LES will present your Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) or Work Instruction (WI) form to the technician or analyst in the same format and flow that is the current standard practice in your lab. Each step of the SOP, including preparatory and intermediary steps, is presented by the LES, and the LES is where the scientist records the completion of each step or the data/result of the step/test. The analyst is then guided to the next step in the SOP and the bench level control process is continued until the entire SOP or WI is completed. Along the way, all requisite e-signatures are recorded within the LES.
Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS)
The casual lab informatics user may think that the aforementioned scenario does not sound that much different than what one would expect for how a Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) LIMS could operate. One can argue that by utilizing a LIMS’ sample lifecycle stages, event triggers, workflows, and other capabilities, that the same level of bench level control would be achieved. However, as with many things in the laboratory informatics world, it is a matter of degree and how one accomplishes the goal.
While it is true that a LIMS can provide access to your SOPs, WIs, workflows, analyst training, instrument maintenance, and reagent and solution expiry requirements, a LIMS is not really designed to present a step by step, SOP-like user interface to the scientists. So, from a User Interface (UI) point of view, a LES will present itself much differently than a LIMS. Also, particularly challenging for a LIMS is the management of preparatory and intermediary steps in a testing regime. It is not unusual that a LIMS simply requires that finished form result be entered without requiring the recording of interim data or information.
LIMS vs. LES
To highlight the difference between a LIMS and LES, let’s use the recording of a simple sample weight as our example.
A LIMS might want the analyst to record the “Weight of the Sample”. From the LIMS’ point of view, it is a given that the analyst knows how to perform the test (especially if their training records are up to date) and that they will do so with accuracy and precision.
The LES, on the other hand, would not assume anything and would guide the analyst through the entire process of weighing a sample. The LES may request if the Balance is calibrated (Y/N?), “Weight of the Tare”, “Weight of Sample + Tare”, “Weight of Sample” (which would be a formula).
As you can see in this example, the users (scientists) are not fully guided through their processes and procedures when only using LIMS. This opens the lab operation to the possible proliferation of errors and even more importantly removes the proof that each step in the SOP, even the preparatory steps with no recorded data result, was properly carried out. Therefore, a LIMS, by itself, can be challenged to provide true bench level control that these types of labs and organizations require to operate properly and prove it!
LIMS + LES
Right about now you are probably asking yourself, why the combination of a LIMS and LES is even necessary, let alone “A Winning Combination”. What we haven’t explored is how data is stored, managed, retrieved, and presented by each of these laboratory informatics systems. Because while a LES may provide an efficient and simple SOP-like, User Interface, LIMS solutions truly shine when it comes to lab data storage, management, retrieval and presentation capabilities. This quickly became very evident in the laboratory informatics world, to the point where most leading LIMS vendors are now offering a LES or LES-like capability or user interface that can be bolted on to their LIMS solution. In essence, this provides you with the best of both worlds when you are in a lab that is seeking bench level control of its processes and strong data management and lab management capabilities.
Do you use a LES in your lab? How about a LIMS? Or are you using the winning combination of LES/LIMS? Regardless or your chosen solution, has your chosen lab informatics solution met your needs?