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From lab to enterprise

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Tom Wilkie explores how laboratory data management applications are integrating more and more with software outside the lab, including enterprise resource planning software, thereby feeding into overall business management

Integration is the great theme of contemporary laboratory informatics. Ultimately it is based on the belief that scientific data and knowledge is valuable to more people than just those who created it in the first place – that other people, those outside the laboratory, will find value in the information generated within the laboratory.

Some aspects of integration are so obvious that we now all take them for granted. In all areas of business where computers are used, not just in scientific applications, we have grown accustomed to having PCs networked together; so that everyone can communicate and share data by email or by shared files within the network. Because communication is close to instantaneous, geography has been abolished.

This means that, within one multi-national company, laboratories that are geographically remote can, at least in principle, talk to each other as if they were next door. As a result of the growth of the web, users expect to be able to access proprietary information within their own company, no matter where it is held geographically, through a simple-to-use browser interface. However, this principle is sometimes poorly realised in practice. Large companies have tended to grow larger as a result of mergers and acquisitions and the smaller company that has been acquired may well use laboratory software that is incompatible with that of its new parent company.

Where workflow is organised around sample analysis, for example in a quality control laboratory, vendors of Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) can offer common software across all the laboratories in the company, thus integrating the flow of information across them all. According to Dave Leitham, director of informatics products at Thermo Fisher Scientific, large multi-national companies ‘need to pull disparate operations together to achieve better overall workflow, better access to information, and to break down information barriers.’ He sees web-based access to information as important to this effort – part of Thermo’s ‘sophisticated dashboarding technology’ – offering the ability to deliver information outside the lab but with security settings to control who gets access to what information.

Ron Kasner, vice president of corporate development at LabVantage, notes that the ‘thin client’ nature of Sapphire LIMS offers advantages here. His assessment is that some aspects of integration are ‘less sector-driven and more size-driven. Large organisations have legacy systems. One large pharma company might have 20 LIMS, just in manufacturing, so the first process is to replace these 20 by one LIMS. Then you can introduce LIMS in the clinical and R&D side.’ Customers demands, therefore, are not static and the configurable approach adopted by LabVantage’s Sapphire LIMS means that ‘as needs change you can change it using the configuration tool rather than recoding.’

Within a single laboratory, some other aspects of integration are not so well developed. The process of linking together all the different scientific instruments – often from different vendors who have bundled in proprietary software – is still a work in progress. The difficulties of this sort of integration have allowed some companies, most notably Labtronics, to carve out a good niche in providing interfaces and intermediary software within the lab. Limslink CDS, introduced in 2000, is now well established as a means of getting complex scientific hardware to communicate easily with laboratory information management systems.


Data displayed using the AnyWare browser

Incompatible instruments also make the analysis and interpretation of data very difficult, but it is here that Bio-Rad scores, according to Dr Gregory Banik, Informatics Division general manager for the company. ‘We are vendor neutral. That is required in today’s heterogeneous instrument environment. Having a single instrument solution is no longer tenable.’ At the end of February, Bio-Rad released version 3.0 of its KnowItAll Enterprise Server and the new KnowItAll AnyWare browser client. The combination of the two means that any company can build a database – to store proprietary structural, spectral, chromatographic, and other textual data from chemical, biological, or process environments – on the server and then staff at all sites worldwide can view the data via the AnyWare browser. The launch of AnyWare means that any user, using any hardware platform, any operating system, or any web browser, can access spectral, structural, or chromatographic data anywhere in the world.

According to Dr Banik, ‘the system itself is expandable. You can have multiple servers that are self-replicating – not just a single master with slave servers. In addition, they’re fast because the data is stored in RAM.’ Indeed, he believes that searching using the server system is so fast that ‘network latency’ becomes the issue – retrieving the data over the internet or network is the slowest part, not searching the database. The system creates global data resources and information on product properties based on the input of spectroscopic and spectral information.

The company has extended the KnowItAll system beyond database capabilities to integrate chemometrics technology for multivariate analysis. Adding Pirouette software from Infometrix offers an integrated cheminformatics, chemometrics and analytical informatics environment. Using the Pirouette algorithms, users can simplify complex relationships between samples and then visualise the relationships and associated data using comparative visualisation tools for spectral, chromatographic, chemical and alphanumeric information.

Bio-Rad is traditionally seen as a life sciences company, and the addition of chemometrics capability was originally viewed as a way of providing tools for metabolomics research. But it also opens up new areas such as process analytical chemistry. Dr Banik cited the example of a petrochemical plant where there is a need to predict the octane level of a sample in a refinery. Once a model has been created in Pirouette it can be saved and the parameters ported to KnowItAll and run a batch on the database.


Principal component analysis and visualising chemometric relationships and associated data through KnowItAll and Pirouette

Thermo’s Leitham also sees two different types of integration at work. One is the integration of work across geographies. The other is the need to integrate different disciplines (and hence, different instruments) within the enterprise, Thermo Fisher has acquired several other companies over recent years giving it different LIMS based on different underlying IT. He noted that the company was ‘working to move different LIMS on to homogeneous platforms. You can look at the upcoming release of Atlas (the chromatography data system), which will work seamlessly with Darwin LIMS. The Retriever tool – a reporting and business information platform – will be able to work in “platform aware” mode but it can also access information from any relevant database and so allows you to access data for business intelligence reasons.’

This is the emerging frontier of integration – getting laboratory systems to talk to non-laboratory software. In April this year, Labtronics introduced Nexxis iLab to collect and combine information from laboratory informatics systems, laboratory instruments and analysts, and integrate the whole system. A novel aspect is that iLab will communicate not just within the laboratory – among the instruments, data systems, and scientific document management systems – but also out of the laboratory to business systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

Leitham noted that, for Thermo Fisher: ‘part of our platform is Integration Manager.’ It offers not just instrument integration – ‘starting to build business intelligence out of different disciplines’ but also a common point from which one can link Thermo’s software to SAP and ERP, including such aspects as asset management and workflow. In his view, however, ‘the interesting thing about business intelligence is that it’s always evolving and is idiosyncratic to the user.’ Thus the requirements of life science or pharma companies will be quite different from those of a petrochemical company. In this way, Thermo believes that having several different LIMS each tailored to different sectors is one of the company’s strengths. But although the products may have different applications, according to Leitham the underlying ‘platform homogeneity offers the best of both worlds. The same underlying technologies provide different business intelligence.’

For Ron Kasner, the modular structure of Sapphire offers advantages. While he too sees common functions, he equally sees a need for specific work ‘depending on the lab you’re in. For a pharma lab, the stability testing module may be important, whereas Sapphire also offers a biobanking module, for example. The trilogy of a single platform, the modular structure, and the configurable approach offers confidence to customers that it is evergreen and upgradable.

In February, LabVantage announced that it had achieved ‘Powered by SAP NetWeaver’ status. The integration enables the exchange of information between the mySAP ERP application and Sapphire LIMS using the SAP NetWeaver Exchange Infrastructure. The Sapphire Enterprise Connector is a separately installable and configurable application-to-application tool to facilitate tailored, bi-directional data flow between Sapphire and mySAP ERP.

According to Kasner, ‘We already had a connection to SAP and we recognised that NetWeaver is a big driving force for SAP. We decided that just as other applications integrate to NetWeaver, so we’d benefit from it.’ Sapphire, with its modular approach, can act as a laboratory backbone all the way from R&D to the manufacturing end of the enterprise, he said, but the advantages of SAP integration were evident ‘even if you just look at the manufacturing environment. Managers need data from the lab because they need to release batches and they can take quicker corrective action on line. At a higher level, decision makers want to see where the bottlenecks are. If they can pull a report out of SAP that has captured quality control and materials management information from Sapphire, then there will be better decision making in the organisation.’