LIMS (Laboratory Information Management System) products have been around for decades. Like most products, they began with someone writing software to meet a company’s specific needs. Some of those homegrown products grew and became commercial, and an industry was born.
LIMS products vary from software for small laboratories to systems for enterprise-class distribution, where large implementations can cost millions of dollars and encompass licensing, training, validation and all the other services required. As with other software products, there are many ways to implement and purchase a LIMS, from boxed software to commercial licenses for COTS (Commercial Off-the-Shelf) to open source to SaaS (Software as a Service). Possibilities vary greatly regarding the choices appropriate and available for the specific type of laboratory where the LIMS will be implemented.
Minimally, a LIMS manages the laboratory’s samples, tests and results. It manages and coordinates the work, performs calculations and stores data. It indicates how much work has been finished on a sample and provides many other related features. LIMS products often include features that do not fall into this simple model, but that seem to be natural extensions of the work being done.
Additionally, some LIMS offer features that you might find available for purchase as standalone software. A few common examples are the features to manage instrument calibrations and preventative maintenance, or features to manage drug dissolution testing. Although features such as these are available separately, there are certain situations in which it is appropriate to do this work directly in the LIMS.
It is important to note that a LIMS and an ELN (Electronic Laboratory Notebook) are not the same thing. An ELN is a literal replacement for your paper laboratory notebook. As such, it is a place to enter and keep your laboratory notes and get signoff; you use it just as you would use a paper notebook.
The confusion between LIMS and ELN occurs partly because there is some overlap between them. Additional confusion arises now that some LIMS include ELN features, some ELNs contain LIMS features, and some products combine LIMS and ELN. Beyond the LIMS/ELN question, there are yet other products that sound like they might be a LIMS but have different names. There are still other products that are called “LIMS” but do not appear to be like anything that has just been described.
Why you cannot just go buy a LIMS:
Selecting and buying a LIMS takes effort and time in advance of the actual purchase for the following reasons:
- The functions and distinguishing factors among available products are always changing.
- Right now, LIMS is in a period of especially high transition as LIMS and ELN software continue to converge. Things might become even more confusing before this period is over.
- Even before LIMS, ELNs and other products took on some of the functions of each other; now, the types of LIMS available are somewhat overwhelming. There are Environmental LIMS, general-purpose LIMS, Web-only LIMS, PC-only LIMS, R&D-focused LIMS, QC-focused LIMS and Forensic LIMS—to name just a few. Products have been developed for specific industries, company sizes and specific technical solutions as well.
As our laboratory informatics industry continues to change, I recommend that you ignore the labels and look closely for the features that meet your needs. We can watch the progress of the transition, but whether products will be combined into one-size-fits-all solutions or kept separate remains to be seen. Today, we have both types of solutions because different customers need and desire different solutions. It is quite possible that we will see the same split continue in the market. Ken Rapp of VelQuest, whose product combines LIMS and ELN features, explains, “VelQuest believes that the GMP-ELN and LIMS layers contain very different functionality. However, market pressures are forcing a “convergence” of the requirements into a fully integrated Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) solution available either from one solution provider or as a best-of-breed integrated solution.” At Thermo Fisher Scientific, where an integration plan is used to turn specialized products into a single solution, Informatics marketing director, Susan Najjar, says, “…from a usability perspective, if users are working with a well-integrated solution, the merging of these technologies becomes irrelevant.”
What all this means is yet more choices for you to consider. But even though more choices may make the selection process lengthier, there is an increased likelihood that the best solution for your laboratory will be out there and readily available.