There has been a lot of talk recently about the use of technology in lab operations to save time and automate previously manual tasks, especially using a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS). Much has been written about how LIMS can be used to automate processes in laboratories, and this advantage has not gone unnoticed. By now, the majority of large analytical labs in the United States have some kind of laboratory informatics system, and almost half of all labs globally are using a LIMS. In the life sciences, that percentage may be as high as 70%.
A number of trends are driving this increased focus on automation. Some are demographic (increasing numbers of laboratory staff reaching retirement age; lack of qualified personnel to fill open positions) and some are functions of the current state of the world—the COVID-19 pandemic or site consolidations to drive efficiency. There are widespread staffing shortages in medical and clinical labs, which have the potential to ripple out into other industries. Even if your lab isn’t experiencing staff crunches now, it could be facing them soon.
So, what can be done to address staffing shortages if you’ve already implemented a LIMS, ELN, or CDS? What options are there for automating additional laboratory procedures to address staffing shortages and lessen the workload on staff that remains? This blog post will provide some ideas.
A common task in phase 2 of a LIMS implementation is instrument interfacing. In the last several years, advanced systems like MettlerToledo’s LabX and Dassault Systèmes ONE Lab are making it possible to import data to your LIMS from a much wider variety of instruments. When the data from all of your analytical instruments can be compiled in the LIMS, it makes reporting and trend spotting that much easier. This, in turn, saves time for your laboratory staff and allows for more efficient scheduling of users’ time and of batch processes.
Additional benefits to workflows and processes can be derived by interfacing the LIMS with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system like SAP or with a manufacturing execution system (MES). This kind of interfacing across multiple systems provides a more robust view of where your tangible assets are being deployed and consumed.
When you add barcode readers to an end-to-end system interfacing plan, even more efficiency can be derived. A barcode tag and scanner can remove the need for manual lot number entry or inventory checks. If your organization has any kind of warehousing need, this is another area where automation can address staffing shortages. Adding barcode functionality in your warehouse also allows better tracking of raw materials, which is an important aspect of data integrity and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Quality by Design initiative.
If your organization has more money than time, additions like the environmental monitoring or stability modules that are available with many of the big-name LIMS products can free up overcommitted personnel, or allow a lab to take on additional revenue-generating work without having to add staff. Combining barcoding and environmental monitoring can improve inventory tracking and help you know when samples exceed their recommended storage conditions. The stability module can be configured to notify lab staff about when samples should be pulled for analysis. The additional functionality provided by aftermarket LIMS modules can lessen the analytical load on your laboratory staff.
A recent innovation that is being adopted in some labs is the use of augmented reality (AR). If your lab uses many nonstandard workflows, an AR environment can increase the speed with which the workflow can be executed. Visual learning helps many people learn a process better than they could by reading alone. This can be useful with complex standard operating procedures, too.
Smart reporting that pulls information at regularly scheduled intervals is another great way to free up time for your laboratory staff. However, it is important that these reports are presented in ways that make sense to the users who have to take action based on the presented results.
One way to do that is to use best practices in data visualization. A picture is worth a thousand words, and judicious use of dashboards and widgets can provide a better understanding than a text-based report.
STARLIMS has a specific data visualization module (Advanced Analytics). LabWare is configured to work well with Crystal Reports. LabVantage has recently bought CompassRed, a data analytics company, to add to its analytics capabilities. SampleManager also has a built-in Data Analytics module.
An example of how these tools can help when the lab is short-staffed is to use reporting as a means of trend spotting, which can help you efficiently schedule the available staff to handle expected increases in testing.
It is increasingly clear that in the future, the choice of technology will be a secondary consideration when looking at ways to access and optimize the value in an organization’s data. The data itself is where the value lies, and determining the most efficient flow and access points for that data makes good business sense.
It can be hard to flip the script like this because it requires a significant investment of time and resources upfront to clean up the data, ensure a common ontology, and remove redundancies. Doing so, however, prepares organizations for a data-driven future. If your data is optimized and accessible in a form that provides the most value to each type of end-user, less time is wasted across the organization.
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What other ways can labs do more with less staff?