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If you think the words 'decisive' and 'fast-moving' could not appear in the same sentence as 'government-run utility lab', think again, as one large LIMS company bidding for business recently had to. Vanessa Spedding reports

On the face of it, this story could be a description of any one of a hundred Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) installed in big laboratories. IT needs upgrading, management team looks at some LIMS suppliers, chooses one, new LIMS gets installed after some tests and tweaks. But in fact the installation described in this story is unlike most others. It shows how determination and cooperation won through in the face of enormous bureaucratic challenges and how an unstintingly impartial and rigorous approach resulted in efficient decisionmaking. The outcome was that a large system was up and running in record time and servicing dozens of satisfied users.

The customer in question was a utility laboratory in the UK - more accurately the dispersed laboratories of the Northern Ireland Water Service, which is responsible for the provision of water and sewerage services to the 1.6m people of Northern Ireland. Its laboratories must, by law, regularly collect water samples from a number of different locations and sources - reservoirs, sewage plants, rivers, bores, and so on - and put them through various different tests in order to determine whether the water meets standards appropriate to that point in its lifecycle.

The demands are high. The Northern Ireland Water Services' laboratories in Londonderry, Ballymena, Craigavon, and Belfast perform 665,000 determinations, or tests, between them each year on 90,000 samples taken from 103 water quality zones, 585 service reservoirs, 66 water treatment works, 1,088 sewage treatment works, and 600 trade effluent sampling sites. In addition to the five laboratories there are four separate divisional offices and one head office. There is a data link between all sites and a central server at the Craigavon lab, provided by the Water Services' microwave-based 'Integrated Telecommunication Network'. The data from these tests must be logged accurately, processed, kept secure, assessed for regulatory and standards purposes, and presented to the public in an appropriate form, as a legal requirement. There is no room for error.

If anywhere needs a sophisticated, Laboratory Information Management System, a lab like this does. But unlike the water authorities elsewhere in the UK, NI Water has not been privatised. This means that requests for capital investment must be made in accordance with government procedures and the process for allocating a contract involves jumping through many bureaucratic hoops.

Patrick Davis, project manager for the Water Services' Information Systems Development Unit, outlined the enormity of the task: 'We needed to update our LIMS in accordance with an [internal] information strategy review. We were using a DOS-based system with Windows 4.11 on 486 machines: the system was at the end of its life. So we had to make a completely fresh start.'

In order to plan this upgrade, the laboratory had to comply with a process for project management in a controlled environment called Prince 2. The Office of Government Commerce oversaw all aspects of the legal and contractual process. 'We had to account for everything,' said Davis. 'We had to draw up a business case, establish a need, draw up a replacement strategy and quantify the benefit to the water service. This was done in parallel with looking at what the LIMS marketplace had to offer.'

Rather than letting a handful of LIMS salespeople try to convince him of the benefits of their respective systems, Davis had to follow an approach that removed all possibilities of accidental or subjective bias or influence. To begin, he had to survey all interested LIMS suppliers. A total of 350 of them enquired after the tender, and in return were asked to fill in and return lengthy questionnaires that elicited information about their company, their IT offering, their implementation strategy, their support and followup routines, and more - with little idea of what approach the laboratory was actually seeking. Just 32 of them did so. Many, thinks Davis, would have been put off immediately by the cripplingly close deadline (just seven months from contract decision to full implementation), as well as one or two conditions relating to support for legislative requirements.

A thorough vetting process involving potential user groups and a complex assessment method, in which every criterion was weighted and scored empirically for each supplier, brought these 32 contenders down to just three. The factors with the most significant influence on the scores, said Davis, were the technical ability of the LIMS, cost, user-friendliness and the degree of on-site support. The next stage of the procedure was more people-oriented, and involved supplier demonstrations, on-site visits, negotiations and, finally, drawing up actual contracts for the deal for each of the potential suppliers. These three contracts and their concomitant conditions were then frozen. The suppliers, meanwhile, were invited to give their best and final offers.

It would be hard to invent a fairer, more thorough way of selecting an appropriate supplier while at the same time ensuring it fulfils its promises and delivers at the best possible price. In the end, Thermo LabSystems won the tender to supply, configure and install its SampleManager LIMS and the required hardware - from PCs to bar code scanners.

'In terms of the technical features, it was very close between the three suppliers,' said Davis. 'We were looking for a product that was configurable off-the-shelf to meet the requirements of the water laboratory environment - and that was offered by all three.

The key thing in the end was the user perception of the backup and support that would be provided. Also significant was the way that Thermo LabSystems organises the licensing of the modules in its system - for example, it includes the Oracle database but we don't have to worry about an additional license as it was all included as part of the package.

'There are other advantages. We liked its water management module, which integrates fully with the LIMS and enables us to plan our testing schedules while minimising costs and adhering to legislative constraints.

Another key aspect is the amount of configuration of the system that is possible without having to actually customise it. We did not want an inflexible, bespoke system - which is why we have never put forward a User Requirements document.'

Ken Peace, of Thermo LabSystems, believes a key reason the company got the job was its experience in the industry. It already supplies IT to the majority of UK water laboratories. 'We've been dealing with water labs since 1995,' he said.

'Northern Ireland Water Services gave us lot of responsibility for this implementation. The fact that there was no user requirements document was not really a problem, because we knew what they would need and what the system would have to do. But we did have to prove that the system would meet their requirements throughout the process.'

SampleManager LIMS also has the capability to perform a quality control procedure that is essential within laboratories with strict auditing procedures. Known as analytical quality control (AQC), the procedure is fully integrated within the LIMS environment and means that stringent regulatory requirements such as those imposed by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) and the United Kingdom Accreditation Service UKAS) can be more easily met.

The installation involved an intense period of joint development between customer and supplier, and between them they put together an 'implementation project quality plan' and a 'validation master plan' and agreed in writing to the requirements that they would both have to meet.The timescale was tough and the contract included a late delivery penalty clause, which required Thermo LabSystems to deduct one per cent of the total cost (more than 270,000) for every day the project ran over the deadline. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they delivered on time. 'We worked very hard!' said Peace. Whatever the incentives, it was an impressive achievement: the system was up and running by 1 January 2002, the contract having been awarded on 4 June 2001.

'A major part of the task was the uploading of static data - geographical information describing sources and so on, for that laboratory. We devised a system to accomplish this data upload in record time. We provided Excel templates so that the users could extract the data from their existing systems in a format appropriate for the new system. It was then our responsibility to validate those data, so we wrote some specific data validation tools to check them - this was done in my office,' explained Peace.

The system supports 80 registered system users - of which up to 40 may be concurrent - and Peace is confident that the laboratory staff are satisfied with the result. 'Northern Ireland Water Services is one of our happiest customers,' he said. 'It was really the partnership approach, the maturity of our firm and our industry experience that made this work. Sometimes we know what the customer wants more than they do.' He expects to learn from this contract too, and anticipates using some of the data uploading and validation tools for new customers.

Davis substantiates his view. 'With the AQC software, UKAS and DWI auditing has now been simplified. We have increased our opportunities for flexibility, for planning ahead (from a management point of view) and for reporting. We have been able to do away with printing out the public register of data, for example - a huge document that took two days to print every fortnight! - because the public can now query our system for relevant data directly, at our customer services points.' Ultimately the lab plans to put this information on its website.

'We have had to change certain business and laboratory processes slightly and there are a few interface improvements still to be made, but overall the impact has been very positive,' concluded Davis. 'We've ended up with a fully validated system with a strong evolutionary pathway to meet future requirements and costs were kept to within a 0.72 per cent variance of the original fixed price.'

You can't ask for much more than that.