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How software can optimise laboratory operations

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Powerful scientific instruments need powerful software, but help is at hand in simplifying the complexity, writes James Aitken

The modern scientific laboratory continually benefits from new technologies and instrumentation designed to provide new applications and to lighten ever-increasing laboratory workloads. However, new technology sometimes brings with it a complexity that the average research scientist has neither the time, nor inclination, to deal with. He or she would rather be able to simply process samples without needing to remember a complex series of steps, and just be told when the samples are finished or if an error occurs.

The dilemma for instrument manufacturers is to balance researchers' requirements with their own. Understandably, they want their instruments to appeal to as large a number of users as possible - users who will usually have different requirements from one another, however subtle. Often the more features there are, the more complicated the interface seems to the user and, under these circumstances, it is hard for a manufacturer to decide what to put in and what to leave out.

Instrument software is more than likely to be highly complex, because it contains not only the routines needed to run a method or protocol, but also the complex configuration and method set-up routines. In addition, many instrument software packages do not prevent the user from changing configuration details, leaving the system open to potential damage from inexperienced users.

To address these and other related problems, many pharmaceutical companies, universities, and research institutes have set up service laboratories for their research scientists. Where instruments and their maintenance are complex, these departments provide the expertise needed to set up methods, and advise on how best to process samples.

For specialised or one-off projects, these departments offer a perfect solution, but employing specialists for everyday routine sampling is rather extravagant - in terms of time and money! Companies such as Aitken Scientific, a software development company specialising in laboratory applications, is tackling the same issues by simplifying instrument software and making routine analysis more user-friendly.

From simplifying complex user interfaces to restricting access only to the methods needed, the aim is to make it easy to load the samples onto the instrument, provide the systems with the ability to schedule the work to increase throughput, and even email the scientist when the job is finished.

Researchers at GlaxoSmithKline in Stevenage, UK, were finding difficulties with Gilson's UniPoint HPLC software, because they did not use it on a routine basis. They approached Aitken for a bespoke solution.

Aitken developed a software layer, TopPoint, which sits on top of UniPoint and provided the easy-to-use interface the chemists needed. Specialist knowledge is required to set up a method using UniPoint, but then TopPoint takes over. It asks for the user's name, for a method chosen from a preset list of descriptions not codes, tells the user where to put the samples in the rack for processing, then schedules the samples, and runs them using the selected method.

  • The user selects fractions to be recombined using the peaks in the chromatogram, while the plate view shows which wells will be used.

'Next' and 'Back' buttons allow simple navigation throughout, and pictures rather than text are used where possible to make options even clearer. Finally, a summary is displayed, and the user has the opportunity to abandon the experiment at this stage or go back to make corrections. If the researcher chooses to proceed, the experiment is entered into the system and added to the queue. The scheduler element helps tremendously to improve efficiency within the laboratory, especially as chemists no longer have to wait for other experiments to finish before they can add new tasks to the list.

Automation tools such as A-S Automate and Overlord present practical alternatives to a bespoke system. A-S Automate is a general-purpose tool using a simple programmable script which can ask questions, schedule jobs, and control a variety of instruments. It was developed to provide a generic user-interface for a range of instruments and is similar to TopPoint in that, although an expert is needed to set up the system, users need cope only with a very simple interface. The script is like Basic for familiarity and, although it is quite complex, once learnt it is easy to change. There is also now a graphical tool available, using drag and drop techniques, to ease the design of the script.

  • Showing the program flow with icons linked by arrows. Branches are labelled so it is clear which route is taken if conditions are true or false.

A-S Automate has been successfully applied to a number of projects, including: converting the output data from a Molecular Devices plate reader to Pfizer's desired format; the full robotic automation of six different instruments at Neuronyx in the USA; and being used as the core software for a collaboration on industrial robotics at GSK in the UK.

Another alternative is to create a solution that controls Windows applications directly, using Windows functions. Users can effectively write their own supervisor program using Visual Basic or similar languages. However this does require quite extensive knowledge of the Windows Application Programmable Interface (API). Example functions include 'FindWindow', which can be used to find a window with a given caption: and 'SendMessage', which can be used to send a message to a window. Typically, FindWindow would be used first to locate the window on the desktop and get the Window Handle, and then SendMessage to send the window, via its handle, a particular message. Because Windows uses the same SendMessage mechanism when people click buttons and enter text, the application does not know it is being externally controlled.

Windows also has mechanisms called COM (COMponent) and DCOM (Distributed COMponent), which allow a program to be used as a library of functions from another program. So, instead of using the Windows API, users would call functions more directly related to the device they want to control, via the instrument software's COM object. DCOM allows the device to be attached, via the network, to a different computer from the one running the user interface. This is useful if software from different manufacturers does not behave well when run together on the same PC.

COM interfaces simplify the work involved in providing a supervisor program and integrating the equipment with others and as instrument manufacturers realise how important integration is to their customers, they are becoming increasingly available as standard for many new instruments.

A good example of this can be seen at Deerac Fluidics, where a nanolitre dispenser, called Equator, needed to be integrated with other instruments. It is controlled by a program called Spot-Station, which is a COM object as well as a normal Windows program. The Windows program could be used directly to build methods, but the COM object can run a previously defined method from a custom supervisor program, which could also control other instruments. The COM interface allows any method to be run, and reports errors to the supervisor program.

In short, there are many options for simplifying instrument software and, just because a supplier has provided what they term a comprehensive software package for the instrument, this does not mean that users are restricted only to that option. There are almost always ways of making usage simpler and more attractive, by providing a different and simpler GUI that is targeted to the needs of the scientist.

James Aitken is managing director of Aitken Scientific, based in Thame, Oxfordshire.