In the Laboratory Informatics (LIMS, ELN, LES, SDMS, etc.) universe, the value of interfacing and/or integrating lab instruments, lab data systems, business systems, and other enterprise information systems (i.e. ERP, MES, etc.) to your LIMS has been well known and documented. These types of interfaces, and the information and knowledge that can be garnered from them, often are some of the biggest business drivers for implementing a LIMS. Additionally, these interfaces are major sources of efficiency gains, increasing collaboration, and facilitating fast decision making. The benefits are clear, but why is it that interfacing systems and instruments to a LIMS tends to be one of the last things done during a LIMS implementation, if it is done at all?
One of the main rationalizations we hear when organizations are asked why they did not interface any instruments or other lab data systems to the LIMS is that they were going to but ran out of time or budget. You see, these organizations felt that the LIMS needed to be nearly fully implemented and stable before interfacing instruments or systems to the LIMS could be pursued. This assertion generally comes from the IT members of the LIMS implementation team. And while the sentiment is undeniably correct, no one wants to redo work because the system is in flux. The reality is that rigid adherence to this adage is not realistic, nor really necessary.
Having your LIMS almost fully implemented before you start any interfacing endeavors is really overkill. Does every data construct within your LIMS need to be finalized before you begin interfacing? No, not really, but the data structures and entities within the LIMS where the data you are capturing or exchanging with the instrument or system should be clearly defined and mostly stable. We say mostly stable since it is not unusual that when one starts to create the integration between the instrument or system and the LIMS, other data elements may need to be added to properly complete the interface. These additional data elements may not always be obvious when you are just working on the LIMS data structures and will only come to light as being needed when you are in the midst of the design of the interface.
Another common rationalization that we hear when organizations attempt to explain why no interfaces were implemented in the LIMS is that the organization lost momentum. Consequently, Phase 2 of the LIMS project and the interfaces never happened. It is of interest to note that even though interfaces to lab instruments and other lab data and enterprise systems are often critical sources of cost saving, and therefore Return on Investment, they are very often put off to later phases of LIMS implementation projects.
Relegating instrument and system interfaces to Phase 2 or beyond often happens due to improper balancing of the LIMS implementation phases. Unbalanced phases can occur when the LIMS project stakeholders from the management areas (who tend to be the project sponsors) push the priority of having their needs and requirements met (reports, KPIs, etc.) into Phase 1 while excluding the needs and requirements of other stakeholders in that phase. Meanwhile, interfaces to instruments and systems that primarily benefit the bench scientists and the other parts of the organization that utilizes the laboratory data are not considered top priorities by the sponsors and hence, get put off to subsequent phases. Then, when Phase 1 is delivered and the scientists and other stakeholders determine that their needs were not really addressed, the LIMS project will lose momentum and Phase 2 with all the great instrument and system interfaces never happen.
In the early days of lab automation, when interfacing instruments to a LIMS was an exercise that included break out boxes, custom wiring, custom programming, and a whole bunch of effort, the concept that interfacing instruments and systems to your LIMS was a really big chore was a commonly held belief. However, over time, new tools, capabilities, and technologies have been developed in the lab informatics space that makes interfacing your LIMS to lab instruments and other data and information systems a doable, albeit a challenging endeavor.
In fact, most LIMS vendors today provide several tools, subsystems, and APIs to facilitate integrating their LIMS to instruments and systems. They also offer standardized, supported interfaces for some of the most popular lab instruments and enterprise systems such as Chromatography Data Systems (CDS), ERP systems like SAP, and data visualization systems like Spotfire. Interface drivers for most instruments are also commercially available today which makes interfacing these instruments much easier. So the excuse that LIMS interfaces are too difficult to implement is no longer truly valid.
Have you put off interfacing your lab instruments, data systems, and other enterprise information systems to your LIMS? If so, why did you elect to do this? Will you now go back and get those interfaces going?