Dr. Anneke Mühlebach, Marketing Director, Digital Lab, Agilent Software & Informatics Division
As marketing director, Anneke heads the Digital Lab Innovation product management. She is driven to support customers in their transition towards the paperless, error-free and end-to-end connected next generation lab. After her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry, Anneke has worked in pharmaceutical industry for quite some years before she joined Agilent in 2011.
Dr. Robert Williams, Director of Innovation, Digital Lab, Agilent Software & Informatics Division
Robert has over 20 years of experience in the design of software solutions. Leveraging his background in analytical chemistry and instrument development, he has coordinated with customers to co-develop innovative products and solutions to increase laboratory efficiency and productivity.
Q: Thanks for talking with us today. Your statement, the title of this article, is very provocative, what do you mean?
WILLIAMS: In so many labs we see a single person, usually a respected and valued thought leader, as the on-site expert spending most of their time providing individualized support to less experienced lab personnel. We have all worked with someone like this, the “guru”. The person you go to for all the answers, and often, receiving all the problems.
MÜHLEBACH: In some cases, these experts have built and often even coded themselves a unique, highly customized home-made solution to solve a common lab problem, for example managing samples, workflows, and/or data. So, they then become the chief support and maintenance person supporting this customized solution. Yet, this approach is not very sustainable as the system relies heavily on the expert that designed it.
WILLIAMS: Wouldn’t it be nice if you could free up and redirect that person to do so much more like tackling the next and future challenges of the laboratory?
Q: Well, how would you do that if so much of their time is already used?
MÜHLEBACH: As a vendor, we recognize that there is quite some commonality across our customers’ labs to invest in partnerships to architect and build vendor-supported applications. We are actively engaged in building Digital Lab solutions that reduce the need for internal tech support and home-grown systems.
WILLIAMS: And the beauty of this is that your lab guru is the perfect person to enlist in the design and requirement definition for this.
MÜHLEBACH: Once implemented, your laboratory expert can then focus on other urgent and important topics, for example, investigate new technologies like AI, Robotics, AR, digital twins, etc.
Q: Can you give me some examples?
WILLIAMS: Sure, we recently worked with a large pharma company where a 25-year tenure, senior principal scientist had built a custom sample submission platform. This was an interface between their ELN and their CDS system which allowed flexible distribution of analytical work across 3 different labs. The scientist, “Bob,” had expected his workload to decrease and his colleagues to have a smoother experience. Unfortunately, Bob’s job transformed into the owner of this custom system. Any time a patch or an OS change needed to be deployed, Bob had to stop his other work and focus on testing a developmental system and then upgrading their production system. The IT department could only offer limited support because the code was all custom and only Bob knew the details. This doesn’t even count the time he had invested in fixing defects and being a one-person tech support team.
The situation attracted the attention of the vice president when he noticed this employee had exceeded the carry-over amount for time off and made some inquiries. In short, Bob had been unable to take his full allotted vacation for many years due to the constant babysitting the system required. The VP contacted Agilent and we set to work on a plan that would gradually move the labs off the custom solution and onto a vendor-backed system with full support. We incorporated a product called “Sample Scheduler for OpenLab CDS” and enhanced it with a web-based UI that allows a walk-up style sample submission from any PC or tablet (or even phone). Obviously, some workflows will change, and some capabilities will be different, but we have been slowly rolling out this application for users and providing enhancements as they become available. For example, the labs have switched over completely to the new web UI but still use the read-only dashboarding from Bob’s older application for the time being. Bob is still a few years from retirement, but we are very pleased to say that he has been put in charge of a new, exciting project to explore production improvements using data analytics in other parts of the lab.
MÜHLEBACH: Another example is similar but even more common. We became engaged with a medium-sized biotech company that had challenges scaling their high throughput analysis lab and associated sample management. Samples were aliquoted into plates and vials for various assays in several different work bays and at least 3 different labs. The management of the sample traffic had become a nightmare. There was a LIMS that initiated the tests, a separate sample tracking system that ensured proper routing, and a third system to maintain provenance between the samples and the bar-coded containers. Each system worked quite well but there was only limited connectivity between them. The problems began when a series of steps in a rather complex SOP were not followed, and these linkages were broken. In some cases, it took less than an hour to sort out, in others, the QA team had to trigger an investigation to resolve any inconsistencies.
There was only one person, the QC manager, who had to pick up the pieces. For nearly two years, she thought that refining the SOP and frequent training could solve these problems, and, although it did improve, it was still a hassle on a regular basis, and she always needed to get involved in the resolution. After a discussion with an Agilent service engineer, she asked if we could help. We offered a solution to help track and link the different systems. We used features of our LIMS simplifier, SLIMS, to provide workflow controls that would prevent missteps by technicians and ensure proper and accurate data transfer between the 3 existing, single systems. The happier QC manager is now focusing on managing her team and increasing throughput.
Q: So, what you are saying is to rely on life science vendors to do what they do best and adopt these supported solutions. This will liberate your best, but currently “trapped” resources.
MÜHLEBACH: Exactly, free your experts. In addition, there are other benefits as well in security and compliance.
Q: What are those?
MÜHLEBACH: Vendors provide methods for validation in regulated environments and usually offer the services to perform this validation. They also are required to provide information to support vendor and product audits, i.e., is the software produced in a traceable, reproducible, and transparent way? A vendor like Agilent is prepared for that and welcomes audits. However, an internal, homemade solution bears a risk for our customers, since often there was not enough experience or knowledge to provide anything more than the most basic support in these areas.
In addition, data and system security are now the new “table stakes” that go beyond the data integrity needs of basic 21 CFR compliance. Agilent has recognized this and screens all our applications with security testing such as SQL insertion to ensure it will be very difficult for “bad actors” either outside or within a company’s firewall to do any lasting damage. This type of testing is challenging to implement for an internal, custom application.
Q: What would be the first step if someone wants to begin this transformation?
WILLIAMS: One easy step forward is to look around your lab and identify the custom solutions that demand most of your experts’ time. These are the things you would worry about if those experts were to retire or win the lottery.
MÜHLEBACH: As a customer, approach the vendor with your challenges. Consider what vendor products these custom situations are most aligned to. Agilent has launched a Digital Lab Solutions team to help our customers move past some of these innovation barriers and to establish sustainable solutions not depending on individual internal experts. Frankly, most trusted vendors would always welcome the opportunity to work more closely with, and learn from, scientists and technicians.
To learn more about Agilent’s Digital Lab Solutions, visit: https://www.agilent.com/about/digital-lab/en/
To talk to an expert who can help you take the next steps on your digital lab journey, visit: https://explore.agilent.com/digital-lab-contact-us or contact your local Agilent Sales Representative.