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Product Focus: LIMS

LIMS may be processor workflow-oriented, industry-oriented, or incorporate aspects of both.

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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Flexible Software Platforms for Every Lab

A laboratory information management system (LIMS) is software that manages laboratory assets, functions, and workflow, including samples and workers, in a more-or-less structured manner. LIMS are used primarily in industrial labs that process and analyze samples. LIMS may be processor workflow-oriented, industry-oriented, or incorporate aspects of both.

Thermo Fisher Scientific’s LIMS offerings illustrate one way the LIMS market may be sliced and diced. The company sells an “unstructured” product targeting early R&D organizations with flexible workflows and a more structured product for bioanalytical labs (mostly for protocol- or regulation- driven testing for biotech and pharmaceuticals). Two additional offerings serve “manufacturing to spec” in the life science and non-pharmaceutical process industries. Kim Shah, VP of marketing and business development at Thermo Fisher’s Informatics Division (Billerica, MA), refers to these LIMS as “QA/QC LIMS” or “manufacturing process LIMS.”

“Our approach is to design products that fit the environment in which they are used, rather than have one product that must be customized and configured for every situation,” Shah tells Lab Manager Magazine.

LIMS as a service

Until about a decade ago, most LIMS were offered as software packages that resided within the customer’s information infrastructure. “Thick client” LIMS were installed on individual computers; “thin client” products followed a client-server formula.

One of the most significant developments in LIMS has been the emergence of Web-based LIMS developed on the “software as a service” model. These systems resemble common office and e-mail applications offered online. Numerous firms have introduced Web-based LIMS, including STARLIMS, Computing Solutions, Quality Systems International, Core Informatics, Sciformatix, LabVantage Solutions, LabWare, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and many others.

Web-based LIMS are targeted to small to midsized companies for which LIMS are essential, but which cannot afford the several-hundred-thousand-dollar minimum investment in a fullblown deployment.

LIMS installed on customer computers and Web-based products have their strengths and weaknesses. The former are faster, provide connectivity to instruments and printers, may be more secure, and work when Internet connections don’t. Their major drawbacks are high upfront and upgrade costs, ongoing maintenance expenses, and limited connectivity to the outside world.

Web-based LIMS are subscriptionbased products that limit capital investment while providing a nearly complete LIMS experience within a familiar browser environment. IT requirements are minimal and data may be shared with any computer connected to the Internet. The limitations are dependence on an Internet connection and lack of instrument connectivity.

Thermo Fisher introduced its own Web-based product last year, targeting organizations that perform repetitive, routine testing. Shah says, “It’s not a new product, but a new way of delivering it.”

According to Shah, many customers don’t want or need instrument connectivity. Some may simply wish to free workers from entering and looking up data manually; others may require the ability to share actionable data on the fly with colleagues on the next floor or around the world.

“Online systems create visual dashboards for decision making,” he says.

Finally, there are pure “workflow” customers whose only need is a safe, secure place to store and access data.

Electronic laboratory notebooks

A recent survey indicated that most lab scientists can’t tell the difference between LIMS and electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs). No wonder, since the product literature is dense with computer and information technology jargon.

An ELN is, quite simply, a replacement for the bound paper notebooks lab workers used for most of history. ELNs hold specific experimental data that reflect minute-by-minute, documentable lab activities.

Together, ELNs and LIMS help lab workers design experiments, document and archive all data, share data with colleagues anywhere in the world, and provide a legal basis for generating intellectual property.

John McCarthy, VP of product management at Accelrys (Santa Clara, CA), says that while LIMS are designed for structured information, ELNs need to be ready for almost anything. “LIMS help to orchestrate lab work, like moving samples from one experiment to another and capturing information. ELNs augment LIMS by providing the capturing of the plan of the experiment and pulling the data into the notebook,” he says.

For example, process development in chemical or pharmaceutical labs may call for 100 experiments, each generating dozens or hundreds of data points. Once the process is optimized, the next group, scaleup, will need access to the top experimental candidates. “They’ll want to see not just the reactions but the conditions, and why certain reactions didn’t work,” McCarthy explains. “That information is lost or buried in LIMS.”

Accelrys and Thermo Fisher have partnered to integrate the former’s ELNs with the latter’s LIMS. The two product categories are rapidly converging, in fact, but what the final package will look like is anyone’s guess.


For additional resources on LIMS, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit

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If you have a question about your LIMS, visit to connect with other users. Ask questions, post answers, and share insights on equipment and instruments.