For laboratory leaders embarking on real-time asset management, electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) and laboratory information management systems (LIMS) can both play effective roles. These programs can allow for a complete drill-down into which equipment, specimens, and even benches were chosen for the respective work. As is often in laboratories, expanded access for insights can be accompanied by considerable lift. However, the downstream benefits can certainly outweigh the operational maintenance.
Improving asset traceability with ELNs
Fueling the demand is ELNs’ FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) development that creates possibilities for sharing documentation across disciplines. ELNs are highly customizable in their organizational structure. Institutions can organize data by researcher, project, or team. Further, a review and auditing hierarchy can be defined with real-time approval tracking. This allows cross-disciplinary teams to collaborate within excellent security features as well as an expanding list of integrated software and applications, like research literature search engines.
In larger institutions, laboratorians may be stretched across multiple laboratories and campuses, making item tracking and flexible sample management challenging. ELNs have begun incorporating inventory modules to assist teams in understanding everything from which samples have been used in studies, how many racks are available in the freezer, or where another centrifuge can be found.
This level of granularity is accompanied by an initial massive expense of time. In fact, many organizations elect to hire an individual to complete the initial laboratory walk throughs and document all equipment within the ELN software. Legacy bulk imports may be a feature of specific ELNs; however, this often requires a previous spreadsheet or database. Ideally, an ELN’s inventory management feature should be organized in a “nested” approach where rooms and major storage areas are identified, and containers or samples are digitally filed under and within those top-level areas. When doing so, standardized nomenclature of assets (e.g., templated asset labels) can help staff identify what they need. Many ELNs allow users to attach photographs of the assets for easy recognition.
...Labs can reap certain benefits with the flexibility of a LIMS that other informatics platforms can't match...
Once the inventory is developed in the ELN, users can select containers, materials, and samples in the experiment’s list of materials, effectively linking them to the experiment write-up. This not only enhances traceability and reproducibility of the work, but also allows quality auditors to search experiments by keyword or tag if they believe an asset is in question. Further, for specimen tracking, specimens can be moved from freezers to a bench and updated immediately in the inventory to alert others that the specimen is in use and display its current location.
Optimizing asset management with a LIMS
The benefits of ELNs lead to the question of whether ELNs can be linked to laboratory information management systems (LIMS). While complementary, LIMS differ from ELNs by addressing the operational workflows of a laboratory and overall data organization for reporting capabilities. In terms of asset management, LIMS software creates a high-level inventory of instrumentation and can track consumption, creation, or expiration of kits, reagents, or chemicals. Laboratory instrumentation data such as serial number and model, contract type and dates, installation dates, guides, and training documents can all be stored. Similar to an ELN, LIMS can identify if users have made changes to any of the equipment logs and when those changes were added while keeping audit of the previous information.
Increased customizability with LIMS
The ability to know which bench or experiment the equipment has been tagged for may prove difficult depending on the LIMS you’re using. If offered by the LIMS, asset management and tracking could also be separated into specific modules for separate selection or packaged purchasing. For this reason, LIMS are unique and highly customized to specific organizations. While they can facilitate collaboration with external partners and software, compatibility with other software, data security, and user costs are often barriers to large-scale, cross-disciplinary installations. In short, as customizability grows, complexity grows with it—labs can reap certain benefits with the flexibility of a LIMS that other informatics platforms can’t match, but the initial setup and maintenance of the system will be more demanding than out-of-the-box platforms.
Schedule asset usage and maintenance with a LIMS
Many LIMS offer equipment schedulers that allow for authorized personnel to reserve equipment to prevent wasted time when two people have inadvertently planned to use the same instrument at the same time. This calendar format can also be useful for maintenance teams or service/calibration needs as instruments can be flagged as unavailable. If used for such events, the logs from the maintenance service providers can also be stored within the LIMS software for easy reference. Likewise, preventative maintenance and equipment cleaning reminders can be preprogrammed as tasks to the calendar or as auto-messaging to ensure that staff don’t miss important dates.
Generate reports and connect assets
Report generation and instrument connectivity remains the strongest advantage of LIMS software. For assets, this allows for event log tracking when malfunctions occur and a method of reviewing instrument performance over time. It also allows for interface messages to be sent between the systems which can allow for an eagle-eye view of connected instrument’s operational status and error messages. Trend analysis can prevent determinantal equipment failures and promote longitudinal data review for small shifts in performance that could lead to variation in sample results.
As technology scales alongside laboratory complexity, the options for LIMS and ELNs will continue to diversify. ELNs, while typically cheaper than LIMS and flexible across devices, are also limited in their ability to operationalize other laboratory processes. LIMS, while more holistic in the offerings, require the larger-scale migration of operational processes if a system switch is required, which is very costly. For some organizations, the choice may be one or the other. However, for those organizations who want the benefits of both, all-in-one data integration software exists that combines data feeds from ELNs and LIMS into one platform. Whatever the end result, leaders should understand the documentation and needs of their laboratory staff, account for the time requirements involved in mapping inventory, and ensure that the current inventory lists are understood in entirety prior to undertaking any change to asset management processes.