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Standardise, centralise, enterprise

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Integrating LIMS with enterprise resource planning software is topical, but Peter Rees found that standardising and centralising are essential first steps

Suppliers of IT to the science-based industries are looking at the attractive prospect of growing markets. In the case of Laboratory information Management Systems (LIMS), the worldwide market is set to expand from $210 million last year to $330 million by 2009, according to the market research firm Frost & Sullivan.

Of course, not all LIMS suppliers will do equally well. 'LIMS vendors that can deliver systems that can interface with other business software systems and that support multiple languages, time zones and data formats are likely to experience robust growth,' says Frost & Sullivan analyst Nate Cosper. And both LIMS vendors and the vendors of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems are eyeing up the possibilities of integrating LIMS with larger, enterprise-wide planning software.

Such integration should be easier and cheaper with new standards for middleware, known as web services, which have begun to appear in LIMS packages. But before launching into another systems-integration effort that is delayed, over budget, and only partially successful - as so many seem to end up - companies need to look at their existing LIMS setup. The key to successful integration is standardisation, says Thermo Electron's Adrian Fergus. And that's what his company's customers are interested in at the moment. 'It's the hot topic,' he says. As evidence, Fergus points to the latest white paper produced for Thermo Electron by market research firm IDC.

The IDC researchers interviewed 12 companies that had, or were in the process of, rolling out standardised LIMS software across all their sites. As one senior life science company manager said: 'The costs for interfacing to SAP have dramatically gone down ... and the reliability of the interfaces has gone up considerably.'

Of course, most businesses were not standardising as a specific preparation for integrating LIMS with corporate enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. The move is part of a substantial effort by companies, in the life-science sector in particular, to cut the cost of operating a worldwide business, minimise staff numbers, and increase output, at the same time as making their operations more flexible. There is sometimes an increasing workload to deal with at the same time, such as the ever-greater regulatory burden experienced by drug companies. But the logic holds good even in other sectors - quality-control laboratories must turn round samples faster, for example. And as companies look to search and mine data that has traditionally sat almost unused, they are looking for better quality data, with fewer errors that standardisation can bring.

Simplifying and streamlining ways of working in a research-based sector such as the pharmaceutical industry is never straightforward. Many IT professionals are surprised by the amount of compartmentalisation that continues to exist in many companies, even where scientists from different disciplines are working together on drug projects. At the recent World Pharma IT Congress in London, Dr Florian Reiche of Bayer Business Services told how IT staff at Bayer, in an effort to integrate pharmaceutical research data into one global hub, had found it difficult to combine the private data collections of chemists, biologists and other scientists because they were 'all more or less isolated from each other' and used different definitions and software. Information was routinely being swapped between departments by staff manually e-mailing Microsoft Excel files to each other. And at the end of a project, data was often completely lost.

The story is a similar one for LIMS, with different parts of many companies adopting laboratory information systems at different times, the IDC researchers found. Departmental managers have had the power to make their own choice of LIMS software, then to customise it to meet the needs of a single laboratory or R&D site. Some have built their own around databases such as Oracle's RDBMS or Microsoft's SQL Server. In many cases, this process was governed by the installed analytical instruments as much as the work practices of the scientific staff. Little, if any, attention was paid to communication or standardisation with other laboratories or departments.

This piecemeal approach has meant that many companies have had to bear the costs of managing multiple systems, selected by separate research sites. The problem has been compounded by sequential mergers, especially within the pharmaceutical sector. A study published last year by Life Science Insights found that of 31 per cent of people surveyed in drug development were using several unconnected LIMS within their company, with only 26 per cent working with a standardised environment. Many, however, expected to be moving to a centralised system within 12 months.

Companies have been taking steps to improve the situation as better internal communication has become increasingly critical to doing business, and as managers have focused their attention on measuring IT costs and pruning unnecessary spending. These, and other changes, are driving the move towards fewer installed LIMS. Of course, not all labs may want or need to take part in standardisation. R&D departments in particular may require more freedom than others, while process manufacturing, quality control/assurance laboratories need to produce reliable consistent results.

The study carried out by IDC found that limiting users to one make of LIMS could shave off costs in many areas. Fewer new software versions should be needed, hardware spending can be cut, and savings in IT support and training are possible. Productivity gains and improved reliability may also be relevant.

The companies IDC looked at had standardised for operational reasons but they also reaped direct economic benefits, including:

  • A 40 per cent reduction in costs of hardware, maintenance, training and staffing; and
  • Increased productivity, including a 72 per cent increase in LIMS users capable of being supported by a single member of the IT staff.

 

Around half the cost-reduction was in what IDC terms 'hard' costs rather than 'soft' - productivity - savings. Around 80 per cent of the reduction in 'hard' costs came from hardware and software savings rather than IT operational savings. This is because, in most companies, only a small number of IT staff are directly associated with LIMS systems.

The survey looked at a spread of LIMS users from large pharmaceutical and biotech firms to food, chemical, oil companies and a single academia-associated laboratory. The study covered a total of 18 laboratories with 506 direct LIMS users and an additional 1,200 that could access the software.

Standardisation requires investment in new systems. But, by retiring the unwanted software, companies can reduce future maintenance and version upgrade costs. On average, IDC found that every 1 spent was offset by savings of 1.50 on hardware and software alone. And this is a low estimate, resulting from taking a conservative approach to the savings, claims IDC.

Companies standardising on a single LIMS solution were able to increase the number of users supported by one IT staff member from 50 to 86. This led to a 57 per cent reduction in IT staff directly supporting LIMS; staff were cut or reallocated to other areas. They were also able to reduce the amount spent on IT outsourcing for network management, and to fix integration problems. The latter are an important consideration because the smallest configuration changes can break the integration of LIMS with other software. As a result, version updates for multiple LIMS can be a big headache for IT staff, and costly to the company. 'We probably would have to spend more to develop the interfaces, if we didn't have a standard platform,' one manager told the IDC researchers.

IT productivity gains came from greater automation of IT administration and support; help desk activity and other user support fell by 55 to 75 per cent. Important LIMS operations such as data management, archiving and reporting were cut by 70 to 90 per cent. Downtime fell too, freeing up IT staff to undertake more planning, results tracking, data mining and system integration with corporate software. Training savings of up to $250 (138) per user per year were made because of the reduced number of systems in use.

In laboratories, result-tracking improved with fewer lost samples. Consequently, the need to duplicate lost data was eliminated. There was less time when the system was down - from half an hour per month to around six minutes. Productivity of LIMS users increased. Individual gains were small, averaging 3.7 per cent. But more than half the companies credited standardised LIMS with reducing the time taken to bring products to market, while three quarters felt it improved product quality.

Overall savings worked out at around $300,000 (166,000) per laboratory each year. On average, the companies in the IDC's study should see a return on investment, after three years, of around 200 per cent. Depending on the time taken to deploy new software, the initial investment should be paid back within around nine months.

Undertaking standardisation is not easy. Careful planning is needed and cooperation must be sought from as wide a section of staff as possible. This can be harder than superficial observation might suggest. For example, in the pharmaceutical sector, R&D departments can work in very different ways - with different software - despite working together on the same drug project. Even within the same scientific discipline, sites in different countries can have very different ways of working.

The problems are common to many large information-system roll outs, as many attendees at the Electronic Laboratory Notebook conference in London in September heard. Speakers from small biotech Array BioPharma, and from pharma giant AstraZeneca, emphasised that research scientists have to be persuaded rather than compelled. Large-scale, top-down IT projects are not a high priority for them, and gaining their willing support means showing them how they will benefit from a project - by getting faster answers to their requests for analyses, for example.

Some differences between departments may not be amenable to a compromise - most medicinal chemists wouldn't be happy with the restrictions placed on staff working in more heavily regulated drug manufacturing areas. This means customisation will be needed for some sites or users, something that is easy to underestimate, say the IDC researchers. Careful planning, and sometimes lengthy discussion with staff at all levels, will avoid problems later. Even fairly senior managers can be against large-scale IT projects, if all of the costs but none of the benefits occur while they are in charge, one speaker pointed out. For these reasons, companies should expect the planning period to be quite lengthy.

So life science companies thinking of integrating their LIMS with ERP systems such as SAP's Enterprise R/3 or Peoplesoft's should consider standardising first, according to Thermo Electron's Fergus. But they should get all the cost savings and productivity gains outlined by the IDC survey, together with easier and cheaper integration with their ERP.