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Good Chemistry

Latest mobile offerings deliver greater efficiency, security, and compliance

by Bernard B. Tulsi
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A quick glance at the display screen of the average smartphone will provide clues about the ubiquity of the mobile app. Talk to the phone’s user, and you will likely get regaled with accounts about the indispensability of apps in the conduct of modern life. With expanding roles in helping design experiments, collect samples, replenish consumables, monitor projects, access literature, overcome software limitations, and collate data along with many other functions, apps are fast becoming indispensable in the laboratory also.

While definitive data are not readily available on the numbers of apps downloaded specifically for laboratory use, it is a reasonable expectation that information technology-savvy lab staffers were responsible for a sizeable portion of the 102 billion total app downloads in 2013. IT research and advisory company Gartner, Inc., estimated app revenues at $26 billion last year; 83 billion downloads (91 percent) were free. Gartner estimates that total downloads will grow to approximately 139 billion in 2014.

By many end-user accounts, apps help improve personal efficiency and group coordination and assist in the smoother operation of the entire laboratory enterprise. Conveniently designed into compact software packages with highly specialized capabilities, apps appear to be a natural fit for mobile smartphones (which had greater global sales than their less brainy predecessors for the first time last year) and mobile tablets, the heir apparent of the once-dominant but bulkier notebook computers. Apps running on smartphones or tablet devices have emerged as a convenient yet potent tool to access complex underlying digital systems that required considerable skill, time, and financial resources to build.

In operations that many end users may now consider routine, apps are downloaded into mobile devices that are capable of functioning in a detached, stand-alone manner. These devices can be readily connected and synchronized within a lab’s network, typically to upload test data obtained from instrumentation in the lab or in the field. By any measure, this is a boon to lab staffers because it increases flexibility, facilitates movement between work stations and across functional areas, and enables related functions such as accessing references and standards—all without interrupting the primary work flow.

An app with precisely this in mind was released by Grand Interactive, which develops customized mobile applications for use with instrumentation in the biotechnology and life science areas. Designed to obtain realtime performance data from the ProFlex PCR System from Life Technologies, the PCR Essentials app allows lab personnel using iOS- and Android-based mobile devices to monitor, review, and share data as well as to perform other tasks remotely. The app also provides instant access to master mix calculators and pertinent how-to videos.

The typical lab layout features a number of function-based stations, including weighing, media preparation, pH meters, centrifuges, and colorimeters, among others. Researchers and technicians generally visit and use the tools at these stations and record data in paper lab notebooks. The replacement of the paper notebooks with smart mobile devices equipped with specific apps enormously increases efficiency, accuracy, and the ability to interact on a real-time basis with a larger network. Among other benefits, this also reduces transcription errors because, unlike with paper records, technicians need to input data only once into mobile devices.

When the time and location where a sample was collected are important, such as in wastewater monitoring, capabilities embedded in mobile apps running on a smartphone could store the time the sample was taken and the GPS coordinates of the location. This information can then be uploaded into the laboratory information management system (LIMS) and become available across the enterprise.

Security and compliance—such as avoiding the download of extraneous, noncompliant data or the unauthorized or inappropriate release of critical, sensitive results—are among the major benefits end users derive from the deployment of smart apps. Apps that alert researchers about the qualification status of instrumentation or the need to obtain standards or recalibrate equipment also help ensure both compliance and good laboratory practices.

Gene Tetreault, senior technical director of analytical development, quality, and manufacturing at Accelrys, which has developed mobile data recording apps for lab informatics, says, “The intention is to be running on a mobile device while walking around the lab while conducting procedures.” Accelrys Capture, the first mobile app the company has created for the Windows 8.1 mobile operating system, was designed to enable scientists to move around their labs and record information in conjunction with their electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) experiments. Tetreault says this app facilitates the capture of observations, pictures, and annotations, among other information.

Accelrys refers to Capture as next-generation mobile: “We are taking advantage of the fact that finally the hardware has caught up to us, and everyone now has a mobile device, a tablet, or an iPhone or an Android device—and it is very accepted now to have an app that does specific functions,” says Tetreault. “This next generation of apps will do a lot of the same functions we do today—managing procedures, capturing data, integrating with equipment, performing calculations—but in the next-generation format.”

Tetreault says that laboratory informatics focus on planning, managing, executing, and reviewing relevant work processes, which follow the same flow as overall laboratory operations. He says the impact of mobile technologies is really felt in the execution phase of laboratory projects. “This is where the researchers are up from their desk; they are moving around and picking up their assignments, samples, and materials.”

He notes that in the lab today, lab staff will likely have tablet devices on which they will see a listing of the work to be done. Right on the smart device, they can open up the work order and follow the associated procedures— preparation of a sample or equipment or execution of an analytical test, all of which are considered lab work. According to Tetreault, “Traditionally, that lab work was done on paper and in some cases on our first-generation laboratory execution system (LES), but this represents the greatest role for our mobile application systems.”

Accelrys Capture is used to collect information on experiments in progress. Tetreault continues, “An experiment might involve preparing a solution, collecting the pH, and mixing the solution with a variety of different liquids. To execute this, technicians will open the Capture app, which will allow them to take a picture of the solution, add in notes on the procedure they are following, and input voice recordings, among other steps. Capture allows all these inputs at the same time as the experiments are being updated.” Tetreault notes that with the Capture app, data is collected immediately and will not need to be transcribed—tremendously improving accuracy.

Capture works very closely with the Accelrys ELN as an add-on capability for a relatively modest additional cost, according to Tetreault. He foresees the app working as an add-on to other vendors’ ELNs or LIMS in the future.

Tetreault acknowledges that older and younger people may approach apps differently. He says that the pioneer-ing work of Apple focusing on particular tasks and ease of use might have helped to reduce generational differences in the use of certain apps. “In the laboratory, we have a similar challenge with our prior technology— people were okay with using it because of the benefits, but the learning curve was relatively high.

“Now, though, you can see someone picking up our Capture app, and even though they may not be comfortable with an onscreen keyboard, they can handwrite into the app, and their handwriting is automatically converted into digital text for storage in the database.” He adds, “Features like those make the adoption easier and fun; there is a coolness factor, and the time it takes to learn and use the app is almost zero. We stress functionality, but usability is also a very high priority for us.”

Tetreault says, “The vision for the future is to continue to build focused applications to aid laboratory operations so that all aspects of lab activities are done electronically through apps—for managing inventory, calibrating equipment, collecting data, providing dashboards, and [managing resources], among other functions.”

User-friendly apps with a growing range of functionalities could help increase sales of the underlying products, as in the case of the Sensorex PH-1 Meter accessory for iPhone and iPod and the next-generation SAM1 meter, which was launched at Pittcon 2014. Both apps are available as free downloads. Launched eighteen months ago, the PH-1 is essentially a pH meter for a smartphone or a smart device. Ben Barker, sales manager at Sensorex Corp., says that Apple devices were selected because of their prominence on the market. The PH-1 essentially entailed plugging a pH module into an Apple device, which converted the analog signal from the module into a digital signal on the smart device, and accessing its rich array of features, including GPS capabilities and email.

Barker says that following considerable success with the PH-1, Sensorex looked for ways to expand its sensors and to use this approach on the Android platform. This resulted in the SAM-1 app. Instead of plugging in the pH module via the thirty-pin jack on the bottom of the Apple iPhone, the SAM-1 goes through the audio jack of the Android devices. Barker says, “We have also expanded the sensors. We now have the pH electrodes and conductivity sensors, and we are looking to add dissolved oxygen sensors and some specific ion electrodes in the future.”

This is consistent with the broader direction these days when almost everyone has a smartphone, says Barker. “The question becomes, do you want to buy a standalone meter, or do you want to use a lot of the features that are in the smartphones, including their fantastic displays? In any case, to develop a stand-alone device that comes even close to the technology in the smartphone will incur huge costs.”

Barker says, “What is interesting about these apps is that they have expanded our end-user sales. We are now going into environmental monitoring applications, any industrial processes that need product quality control in portable units, homes, commercial settings, pool and spa testing, aquaculture, horticulture, and hydroponics—which is a huge industry now—municipal water sampling, wastewater for clients, municipal testing, school and college labs, and industrial labs, among others.”

“Compliance testing is another area in which we have a lot of requests. Smart-phones actually save the data so there is no need to write it on paper. By doing that, the numbers can be validated versus someone using a test strip, writing what they think the result is, or even fudging the numbers. This approach actually gives [the person] a device that stores the data and saves it without allowing anyone to make internal adjustments.”

Barker says that there is little doubt that apps increase efficiency. “You have more information available to you, and there is a fun factor as well when you can pull up data right on the smartphone.

“Apps provide end users with a number of functionalities right on the phone, at their fingertips—and most apps are extremely user-friendly—they are so intuitive, there’s no need for manuals to tell you how they work.”

Still, there is definitely a bit of a generational divide in the use of apps, according to Barker. “We see younger people quickly taking to the SAM-1 at our trade show booth. They take instantly to the PH-1 because they do everything on their smartphones these days. We hear those comments from the younger crowd all the time.”

Some people in the older crowd use and understand the new technologies also, but some have an older, more reluctant approach, says Barker. He notes that some older lab folks still have flip phones or no cell phone at all. “They look at our product and ask, why would I use that? I have pen and paper, and [they do] the job for me. There is a bit of a divide, but still we see increasing numbers of people going for these devices.”

“We try to make them as user-friendly as possible so that anybody could use them. By incorporating features that make jobs easier, everyone, young and old, could quickly derive the benefits.”