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Product Focus: LIMS

Mobile techs gaining ground

Angelo DePalma, PhD

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

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Mobile technology is finally picking up steam in laboratory information markets, says Colin Thurston, director of product strategy, process industries, at Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA). “We’ve observed the trend, throughout informatics, to support different platforms, particularly in the LIMS space.” The sweet spots for mobile access are sample collections occurring outside the lab, for example, taking health and safety samples throughout a pharmaceutical facility, in collecting environmental samples in the field, or when testing labs become too cramped to house stand-alone data systems and hardware. On one hand developers of mobile applications strive to be platform-agnostic, but many are now developing dedicated “apps” as well.

Tablet interfaces are of course simplified, with a specific look and feel for specific tasks. “We don’t anticipate that a tablet would become the only device someone uses,” Thurston explains, “but they more than serve the purpose in specific situations such as offsite sample collection.” Tablet functionality being what it is, a field specialist miles from home can log a sample, read its barcode, input the precise geophysical location through global positioning, date/time stamp it, and transmit all metadata back to the data repository (usually a laboratory information management system [LIMS]) through remote Internet access. (Field analysis and data transfer are also possible through field instruments and even tablet-like devices, but that is the subject of another article).

Build vs. buy

For an interesting take on build vs. buy for LIMS, see the accompanying article in this issue, INSIGHTS on Data Management Systems, page 60, “A Q&A with Two Laboratory Data Systems Experts.” Yes, research organizations routinely built their own proprietary scientific data management systems from the ground up, using in-house IT personnel. Scott Kuzdal, PhD, life science business manager at Shimadzu Scientific Instruments (Columbia, MD), has “seen a lot of changes in LIMSs. Over the past decade, large clinical labs expended time and effort building LIMSs. Now many large institutions are moving to fully commercial LIMSs. The days of creating their own LIMSs are disappearing.”

There are several reasons why commercial LIMSs have become a viable option. Integration between LIMSs, electronic lab notebooks, instrument data systems, and other lab- or organization-wide software used to be a hurdle. Increasingly, it is viewed as an essential. Kuzdal gives the example of mass spectrometers, whose instrumentation and software were created first, then made to fit a LIMS. “Integration was not a top priority. We now see that next-generation spectrometers are designed to integrate seamlessly with LIMSs. Instrument makers are much more proactive, as they learned that customers look for this functionality.”

Why would anyone bother to build a LIMS? Peter Nollert, PhD, chief technology officer at Emerald Bio (Bainbridge Island, WA), faced this question some time ago. Labs do this when they can’t “find anything that fits.”

While buying is the only alternative for most smaller laboratories, managers might consider noncommercial or academic software as an alternative. PiMS, an Oxford University software development project, focuses on labs involved in protein structure determinations. PiMS is freely available to academic laboratories and commercially available through license. One can view it as a type of hybrid—not quite fully developed for every workflow, but close enough so customization does not involve reinventing the wheel.

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