The internet has had an enormous impact on our lives by allowing quick access to information, expediting business transactions and providing communication from anywhere in the world. Even your children and parents are using email, instant messaging, on-line banking, Google™, ebay®, Amazon, and bevy of other sites on a day-to-day basis. In essence, the internet provides a trouble-free way to save time and add convenience to our lives, so why not provide these same benefits to your laboratory information?
In its most basic terms, a LIMS is software that is used to promote an accurate flow of sample and associated test data to and through the laboratory to transform it into information that is used to make critical business decisions. Modern LIMS also provide self-auditing capabilities and easy access to historical data through interactive queries and/or reports. The benefits of a LIMS vary based on the size and charter of the laboratory. Let’s look at how the combination of a LIMS within the internet environment will enhance the efficiency of this powerful corporate tool for labs of all types and size.
We’ll first explore the general benefits of implementing a web-based application compared with traditional software applications and then describe how efficiencies are achieved within several dayto- day LIMS tasks through the implementation of a fully web-based system.
ARCHITECTURE AND MANAGEMENT
The beauty of a true web application is its architectural simplicity. To run any true web application, all you need is a PC with a web browser internet (or corporate intranet) access. There is absolutely no software installed on your PC, so you don’t have to worry about the software’s configuration, computer’s disk space, memory, and, most importantly, conflicts with other software (often referred to as “dll hell”). All modern PCs come equipped with a browser and internet connectivity is now so prevalent that you can use web-based applications from anywhere at any time.
Web-based software actually resides and runs on a remote computer (or web server) and the data is stored within a database that may be installed on the same or different computer (or database server). Your browser simply displays formatted data that is located on the remote computers. This architecture reduces local IT desktop support duties to the single task of maintaining the internet (or intranet) connection and the application support consists of managing a set of files on the web server and managing the database. The IT manpower savings experienced will be very large relative to the size of the organization.
Web-based applications have far more reasonable demands on the client PC’s memory than locally installed programs. By residing and running on servers, web-based applications use the memory of the servers instead of the desktop PC. This leaves more RAM available to run multiple applications simultaneously without incurring frustrating performance hits so you’ll make more effective use of your desktop computers or purchase less expensive computers.
A wide degree of cross-platform compatibility is provided via web applications because the browser is the only software needed on the client PC. Crossplatform compatibility means that your desktop computer can be traditional Windows-based PCs running internet Explorer or Firefox, a Macintosh PC, or a Linux PC. In virtually all cases you’ll be able to make use of all of your existing hardware.
Sooner or later software needs to be fixed or updated. When using a web application all software updates are managed from a single location so all users will always be using the most recent release of the software. More importantly, there is no need to disrupt users by having new software installed or downloaded. In fact, many organizations don’t even allow end users to install any software on their computers in order to protect the integrity of the company’s computers and network. The painful and time-consuming process of updating software is virtually eliminated when using a web application.
System crashes and other technical problems that result from software or hardware conflicts with other existing applications, protocols or internal custom software are greatly reduced through the use of web-based applications. In addition, since applications are not installed or downloaded on your PC, there is no fear of corrupting your PC with viruses. With web-based applications, everyone uses the same version, and all bugs can be fixed as soon as they are discovered; hence, web-based applications have far fewer bugs than traditional desktop software so end-user satisfaction is much better.
To summarize, the savings in IT and computing costs that are derived through the implementation of a web-based application is enormous by virtue of its simplicity. You no longer need to have a resident ‘PC expert’ available to install and update desktop software or diagnose and repair the problems that will always exist when using traditional software, so your IT headcount can be reduced or redirected. The system requirements of the desktop computer will be lower and more diverse so your hardware costs will be lower since you can use existing PCs or purchase less powerful PCs. All system management is performed on one or two computers which lowers management cost and adds a great amount of convenience. Finally, there will be far fewer disruptions to your operation due to system downtime. These general features are beneficial to any organization of any size. You can take the reduction in IT support one step further and have the web-based LIMS ‘hosted’ at an external site at a very low cost in order to have highly professional IT staff members administer their application.
It is well-documented that the proper implementation of a LIMS improves the bottom line of a business both directly through the measurable savings that are derived through the reduction in time required by the lab staff to manage data and indirectly through production and product development efficiencies. The specific benefits that are derived from LIMS are dependent on your laboratory size and function, but in all cases, it is the combination time reduction and providing accurate data to its consumers that makes a LIMS a powerful business tool. The use of a ubiquitous web-based LIMS greatly enhances these benefits by extending the LIMS far beyond the walls of the lab in a secure manner to become a boon to labs of any size.
A one-time installation of the software makes it instantaneously available for use by anybody who is granted access to use it by virtue of being provided the web site and assigned a login id and password and associated security privileges. Once installed, a web application reduces the time it takes to implement the software to a simple matter of training the users in the more complex aspects of the software. Since many of the functions will be self-explanatory, many people won’t require training at all.
At first glance, the benefits of a web-based system seems geared towards large organizations with multiple facilities located throughout the world as opposed to a single laboratory with a handful of chemists and technicians, but this isn’t really a true assumption. Small labs may wish to provide their customers with real-time access to the system as an added level of customer service while employees may need to access the system while home or travelling at any time of the day or night to prepare for meetings or service customers in a convenient manner.
We’ve now established that the web-based software is easy to install, maintain and access, but all of this is for naught if it isn’t used. With this in mind, we’ll now concentrate on why it is the right approach for any sized lab and why it will be more effective than a traditional LIMS by answering a few questions.
Training is not needed on the web sites that I use to bank, shop, and surf, do you need extensive training to use a web-based LIMS?
This question is answered by Sid Besmertnik, the Global Quality Control Improvement Manager from Rhodia Novecare who implemented a system that supports 15 quality control labs in 8 countries.
“The user-friendly structure and format allowed plant technicians who are responsible for sample login, data entry, and data transfer to the ERP systems to accomplish training in only 45 minutes per lab. Training for a system of this nature and scope can otherwise take days to complete.”
But training can be reduced even further or even totally eliminated by restricting each user’s access to the pages that are germane to their needs in order to reduce confusion and make the software as simple and straight-forward as possible to operate. The pages can be designed to guide users through their use in much the same way shopping sites do. In addition, up to date on-line help and ‘flash movies’ can be embedded within the web pages to provide immediate instruction on how to use the software to greatly reduce training costs and ensure that the software is used by as many people as possible.
If people can order products over the internet, why can’t they order testing using the LIMS?
The answer is; they can. The sample login (or registration) process is one of the most time-consuming and error-prone tasks that are performed within a LIMS. The traditional workflow for initiating a sample consists of having the submitter fillout some type of paper form by hand and deliver it to the laboratory along with the sample. A clerk or chemist transfers the information into the LIMS by logging the sample(s) into the system. This workflow wastes a lot of time as the task of registering and identifying the sample(s) is actually performed twice and is fraught with error because hand-written submission forms can be misread or lost. Simply replacing the paper form with a web page of similar content will eliminate duplication of effort and eliminate transcription error while providing the lab with the added benefit of advance notice that samples are on their way allowing more efficient scheduling of resources. Clearly printed labels and submission forms can be printed by the LIMS to accompany the sample to the lab to confirm receipt and avoid the illegible ‘chicken-scratch’ on hand-written forms.
Consider the possibilities to the self login approach. Plant operators can log in quality control samples and print labels from the control room. Environmental field samplers can register their samples using internet-connected laptop PCs. Analytical service labs can have their customers log in samples and print labels and submission forms for delivery with their samples. Whether your lab is large or small, the benefits are of equal importance. In fact, the image of smaller analytical service labs will be greatly enhanced by providing this level of service and sophistication to their customers.
I can track the location of my FedEx or UPS package and bank transactions via the internet, can I track my samples the same way?
Of course you can, but like your on-line bank account, the security system is structured to ensure that you only have access to information that is associated with your data. Each sample is assigned a specific sample identifier (or tracking number) so you’ll be able to track the progress of testing and see data as it is released by the laboratory. By providing this level of secure access, the lab can concentrate on performing analytical work instead of answering phone calls with the constant question “have you tested my sample yet?” The sample and request information can automatically be emailed to the submitter upon final authorization by the lab to provide the consumers of lab data with instantaneous ‘just in time’ delivery of information. Regardless of the size of your lab, the immediate access to information in a manner provides a level of selfservice that cannot be made more convenient for the lab or the customer and is especially helpful in making smaller labs appear big.
Most LIMS make it hard to find information, can we have a simple search tool to make it easy for infrequent or novice users to retrieve information?
If the web-based application is designed correctly, it will provide a Google-like search tool in order to make it easy to locate historical information with little or no training. This type of tool will allow customers and lab users alike to simply enter key phrases into a field and the LIMS will find all information that matches the entered criteria. The idea of any web-based application is to make it so easy to use that it becomes less convenient to contact the lab than to retrieve the information from the browser.
When travelling, I can quickly respond to issues via email to make critical business decisions, will I be able to review and release critical data while on the road?
A fully web-based LIMS will provide all functions including the ability to review and release information so you don’t need to be chained to your office in order to perform your managerial duties while travelling or working from home. In addition, you can respond to emergencies faster and as a result, you are able to immediately react to data anomalies and respond in real time.
I can retrieve a statement from my bank account in order to get a clear picture of my finances, is it possible to get managerial information while out of the office?
The report generation features will allow you to extract consolidated information from your LIMS from anywhere at any time. For example, sales people will be able to interactively access COAs, SPC charts, and other informative data while performing presentations to customers. In fact, you can even allow your customers to retrieve the reports on their own. Management reports can be generated during business meetings or in the comfort of your own home. The possibilities are endless and can result in a better image for you and your organization.
These are just a brief listing of the advantages that a true web-based LIMS will add to any organization, but like all changes to ‘the way we do things’, you may encounter some initial resistance when introducing this concept, but once they get accustomed to it, they will absolutely love it!
The implementation of a web-based LIMS is a winwin- win situation for labs of any size. The lab wins through efficiency gained by offloading tasks through the self-service aspects of the software. The consumer of lab information (both internal and external customers) wins by giving and getting more accurate information faster. The organization as a whole wins by greatly reducing cost and improving the corporate image and providing better working conditions for its employees.
Wayne Verost has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Lehigh University; his experience with LIMS began in 1989 as product manager for Beckman Instruments. He is the President of QSI Corporation and can be reached at 201- 251-2101; firstname.lastname@example.org.