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Software is key to better productivity

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Commercial laboratories increasingly turn to less-skilled staff for their routine analyses, but also want to use and share their results in far more ways than in the past. The key to achieving these different goals lies in the software, writes Siân Harris

Interoperability is a crucial component these days

The nature of laboratory instruments has changed dramatically. A few decades ago scientists bought equipment to perform a particular task and would then simply read the output on a screen or collect print-outs. Any software that came with that equipment was usually proprietary and simply there to manage the data acquisition.

Now, however, most vendors regard the software on their instruments as almost as important as the hardware itself. 'The software is key to the overall system,' points out Pat Martell, director of informatics for Waters, which develops analytical tools and their related software. 'Today, scientists have many demands on their time and the more intuitive the user experience is (via software) for the analysis they have to perform, the more productive they can be in focusing on the results of interest.'

To this end, instrumentation software is now expected to provide robust data acquisition, enable the quality of the results to be determined easily and generate flexible reports on the data acquisition and results. Data processing is also becoming more automated. In addition, software is often required to provide traceability for compliance or IP protection.

These usability and automation requirements have become particularly important in chemical and petrochemical companies, where there is an increasing pressure to use less-skilled workers for carrying out standard laboratory analyses. Without the traditional 'expert' users, software must be easy to use and must automate the processes as much as possible, especially for operations that are often repeated.

The dominance of PCs and Microsoft packages has also made interoperability with other software a crucial component of any instruments that scientists buy. 'Customers need software packages that give closer integration. They need to acquire and process data and also want to be able to manage it with other content on their desktops, such as instrument instruction manuals or emails' says Ed Long, laboratory informatics marketing director for Agilent, which also makes laboratory instruments and software. 'Many customers want a way to put data into standard packages like Word, Excel and PowerPoint. We design around open standards and the most common, of course, are those from Microsoft,' he continues.

In addition to being able to import results into reports and presentations, software needs to work with other laboratory tools. This is vital for enabling collaboration, especially for the pharmaceutical industry. 'They need to share data with colleagues around the world,' explains Long. 'With different software platforms this is almost impossible, so they need a single software platform that works with different hardware.'

But this brings its own challenges. 'Having multiple users across different parts of enterprises means that we must facilitate scale,' he says. 'We also have to make sure that it is secure and safe for users to collaborate.'

The status of standards

Software must allow results to be determined easily

According to Long, Agilent's approach to developing this software is to work with open standards and with other hardware vendors. 'We have developed software that is based on open industry standards rather than proprietary [so that it can be used with other vendors' hardware].'

There are strong reasons for customers to want such interoperability and the industry has clearly recognised the challenges. However, official standardisation efforts have not been so straightforward. Over the years various standards committees have taken on the issue of interoperability between laboratory hardware. Currently several sub-committees of the ASTM's E13.15 committee on analytical data are working on standard information file formats for analytical processes such as chromatography and mass spectrometry. And companies like Agilent are involved in these standards efforts. However, the widespread adoption of these standards is hampered by the large numbers of old laboratory equipment still in use.

It is this issue of legacy equipment and data that is generating the most excitement in the standards process for companies like Waters and Agilent. These vendors, and others, are involved in efforts to deal with data that is based on very old computer architecture. As Long explains, 'Companies need to keep this data but they don't how to do it as their legacy computer hardware ages and becomes obsolete.' Agilent's approach has been to develop a technology-neutral format for legacy data so that companies can archive it and retire their old systems as they archive and maintain this data on newer content management systems. Agilent's approach ensures a way that companies can safely retire old computer hardware and still have protection and access to their older data. Waters' Martell says that his company currently provides long-term data preservation using the JCAMP standard.

The next step is a proposed new standard within ASTM. The AnIML (Analytical Information Mark-up Language) is a mark-up language for describing analytical chemistry result data and metadata. It is intended to be used for data interchange and data archiving using modern, web-based technologies.

This proposed standard has been under extensive discussion and review by many instrument and software manufacturers. 'With this broad range of planning and thoroughness in developing the standard, expectations are high that it will receive widespread adoption by vendors and end-users alike,' says Agilent's Long. 'This is very exciting for laboratories – especially for pharmaceutical companies, where they have terabytes of old data that they need to keep to protect their intellectual property. He also expects chemical and petrochemical companies to benefit from these efforts as they have a wealth of laboratory data that they need to keep.

Such efforts are important because technology changes quickly, both in the instrumentation that manufacturers offer and the Microsoft platform that the software must work with. 'The challenge is to keep abreast of these changes,' says Long, 'but this can be accomplished with product groups that are focused on software technologies as they develop.'

Working with LIMS

Beyond the issues of keeping the software up to date, and working with other hardware, there is the issue of how analytical instruments fit within the wider laboratory. A crucial issue in this is how the tools work with laboratory information management systems (LIMS). Long says that Agilent has worked with many companies that help to interface its software with other applications such as LIMS.

One of these partner companies is Labtronics, a company that makes a business of linking the wide range of different pieces of laboratory equipment to the systems that manages the processes in the laboratories. 'Most equipment is designed without considering interfaces to LIMS,' observes Robert Pavlis, president of Labtronics, adding that, likewise, LIMS are usually not designed to interface with instrumentation software.

'I think integration is becoming a very important requirement for customers,' he says. 'There have been moves towards standardisation in the past 20 years. However, right now there isn't really a standard that anybody is using.' The reasons for this are clear, believes Pavlis: laboratory instruments are generally developed by big companies and they want to own their customers by providing both hardware and software to them.

Labtronics has spotted the lack of integration at this level and plugged the gap with LIMSLink, its tool for linking instrumentation software to a LIMS. It also offers a new option for laboratory equipment vendors to embed the linking interface directly into their instrumentation.

With products like this available, Pavlis does not see integration as a top priority for instrument vendors. 'Links between instruments and LIMS are not likely to happen soon,' he says. 'So far, only a couple of companies have even taken advantage of our embedded products.'

The use of integration products such as LIMSLink might seem a good option for customers to take, because the situation is more complicated than simply different vendors using different software. Indeed, part of the problem arises from the flexibility that instrument vendors build into their products. Even if two people have the same piece of equipment, with the same software, from the same manufacturer, they are likely to have configured them differently so that they will not interoperate. 'With four or five pieces of information you can create a wide range of data formats,' Pavlis comments. 'I have seen a pH meter with 21 different data formats. The developer of that never thought about the problems that might arise when it is hooked up to a computer.'

The problem of different configurations is a frequent occurrence even within the same company, Pavlis reveals. 'Often, each group has different priorities and different approaches and no one inside the company has tried to standardise the approach,' he explains. 'If people can't standardise within a company, then what hope is there for the industry as a whole?'

Pavlis believes that this leaves two options for companies: they either completely redo all their equipment so that it is all configured the same way throughout the organisation or they make it flexible by using a product like LIMSLink. And, fortunately for companies like his, he sees an overwhelming support for the latter approach.