As Multifaceted as the Instruments they Control
The right chromatography data system (CDS) can spell the difference between a streamlined data collection process and one that is haphazard. CDSs are software packages that collect, store, and help users interpret data. Some have instrument control functions as well.
CDSs come in many different varieties, which can make selecting one a daunting exercise. The good news is that vendors can provide expert advice on features most suitable to specific workflows. And, in recognition of the diverse chromatography system designs, CDSs are evolving toward improved cross-company integration and modular systems that adapt to a lab’s changing needs.
Data system packages can run on desktops (single workstation) or servers (networked) and cost anywhere from several thousand to several hundred thousand dollars, depending on the size of the network and the CDS’s capabilities. Software capabilities range from basic instrument operation, data collection, and storage to highly integrated network systems designed to meet strict FDA qualitycontrol and security standards. “Basic, single workstation CDS software is sufficient for most labs developing protocols and running routine analyses,” says Brian Murphy, public relations manager at Waters, Corp. He likens entry-level software to Microsoft Windows® 7, saying, “It does a lot of things, but most people are only going to use a limited number of features.”
Basic CDS software can integrate signals from multiple detectors (UV/Vis, refractive index, photodiode array detectors, electrochemical detectors, evaporative light scattering, and others) and transform those signals into chromatograms. A CDS can also integrate chromatographic peaks and assist in method development. More advanced functions include managing and storing data for integration with data from other runs. Some of the most sophisticated data systems assimilate data from hundreds of instruments networked together and allow a lab to comply with Good Laboratory Practices and data requirements of Good Manufacturing Practices that stipulate how securely data should be stored and archived. More complex capabilities like sample preparation, finer instrument control, and data management can usually be added onto a basic software package later.
With all these functions to choose from, customers have been demanding flexibility, and vendors have heeded their requests— most are moving toward ever-increasing scalability and multi-vendor integration. According to Christoph Nickel, CDS marketing manager at Agilent Technologies, multi-vendor controls started to appear in the late 1990s when customers insisted on the ability to integrate data from multiple vendors’ systems. Initially, this was expensive and time-consuming; the language was not standardized and vendors had to write separate drivers for each new instrument that was added to the network. Since then, vendors have made considerable progress in standardizing programming languages.
Chromatography system vendors traditionally do not cooperate closely with control and data software developers—or with their competitors—on software drivers. That is changing. Today, most top instrument makers do what they need to do to facilitate “plug and play” introduction of their devices into standard networks. Nickel says that one day, installing a new device will be as straightforward as plugging in a new printer.
Adding to the pressure on instrument manufacturers for customer satisfaction, independent software developers have begun to offer their own CDSs that compete with packages provided with—and often sold separately from—instrumentation. “Thirdparty software has been successful with established technologies like gas and liquid chromatography,” says Nickel, “but purchasers might be better off sticking with the manufacturer’s software with newer technologies like capillary electrophoresis or the latest ultrahigh- pressure liquid chromatographs.” Fraser McLeod, vice president, Chromatography Software, Thermo Fisher Scientific, agrees. For standard HPLC or GC, he says, “I don’t see any advantage in going with the manufacturer, but more sophisticated instruments are another story. Labs should decide which software meets their needs.”
Most basic CDSs can be used to organize, sort, and present data, and can also export to Microsoft Excel. “CDSs will work well with any decent desktop computer,” says Greg Benedict, an engineer at SRI Instruments, “but some vendors force customers to buy a computer with the chromatograph and data package at a huge markup.” This practice affords some convenience, he says, but customers could buy the same computer at a discount through numerous local or online outlets.
CDSs need regular updates every 12 to 24 months, and replacement every three to five years. According to Christoph Nickel, the main drivers for replacement are changes in computer operating systems and alterations to or replacements of chromatography hardware. Not surprisingly, CDSs are going mobile. In the near future, operators will be able to check chromatography operations and instrument status (temperature, flow rate, number of samples processed) from a smartphone or tablet. Also in the works for CDSs are continued improvements in user friendliness. One goal is to make chromatograph systems simple enough for nonspecialist users. In addition to ease of use, says Brian Murphy, “CDSs are increasingly tailored to very specific applications and workflows.”
Other goals for CDSs are improved integration with NMR, mass spectrometry, spectroscopy, and other analysis modes. Despite significant improvements over the last three to five years, CDSs still have a way to go to provide the levels of flexibility, control, and expandability to accommodate all chromatography workflows with seamless integration.
Because the number of chromatography applications is growing, especially in the petrochemical, food, and pharmaceutical industries, chromatography data systems have become indispensible for many labs. If you’re interested in learning more about the CDSs being used in your peers’ labs, a “Survey Says” article is set to be published on this important topic in the July 2012 issue of Lab Manager Magazine. Here you will learn what applications your fellow readers are using their CDSs for, what systems are most popular, and what features they are looking for when purchasing a CDS. Hopefully, this information will help when you consider buying a CDS for your own laboratory.
For additional resources on Chromatography data systems, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit www.labwrench.com/CDS-GC or www.labwrench.com/CDS-LC