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Tapping into laboratory computing

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The journey of water from reservoir to tap involves many tests. Siân Harris finds out why systems such as LIMS play an important role in environmental labs

Turning on a tap for a glass of water is generally a simple task. A much larger task is ensuring that the water that flows to consumers, farmers and industry is safe to drink and not full of contaminants.

To ensure this, water companies need to take regular samples from many different locations and water sources, including rivers, reservoirs and wells. Samples need to be tested within a certain time of being taken, otherwise the balance of contaminants changes too much for the results to be meaningful.

Water companies also need to test the water quality being delivered to consumers in different locations. What’s more, there are extra demands if there is a complaint or something in the water exceeds permitted limits. For example, last year in Pennsylvania in the USA there were instances where water at households tested positive for methane, which is believed to have come from gas wells in the bedrock. Such a situation requires frequent testing until the problem has been identified and resolved.

Guidance about the levels of contaminants permitted in water supplies is given by the World Health Organization, but is implemented differently in different countries. It also changes frequently as potential new risks are identified and added to the list of compounds that need to be tested for. In the USA, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency reviews its regulations in five-year cycles. According to Colin Thurston, director of product strategy, process industries at Thermo Fisher Scientific, in the latest cycle 23 additional contaminants have so far been identified for which testing is required.

New contaminants might include pesticides or pharmaceuticals that are not metabolised and have begun to work through to the water system. ‘There have been instances recently of the painkiller ibuprofen showing up in wild salmon,’ says Thurston, who adds that when such things happen, they place additional regulatory pressure on environmental labs. ‘As we discover more things to be scared about, more testing is needed to ensure that we are not scared.’

All these requirements and changes put pressure on the environmental labs tasked with testing water quality. For staff carrying out tests in the labs, this heavy workload needs to be evenly spaced throughout the week and across trained staff members. In addition, new contaminants need to be added to the testing regime as they become part of the regulations. There also needs to be flexibility to add in extra or repeat tests whenever they are required, not to mention taking into account changes in staffing and instrumentation.

The call for computing

And then there is the demand for increased efficiency. ‘For commercial labs, the market is highly competitive, with customer service as the major driver to make them ever more efficient,’ observes John Gabathuler, director, industrial and environmental of LabWare. ‘They are under constant pressure to drive down costs, to keep prices competitive, and to be flexible and responsive – driving up laboratory throughput and capacity and lowering turnaround times. Not only this, but the laboratories themselves and the customers they serve are also subject to ever more stringent, evolving and widening international and national regulatory controls.’

This situation poses a huge logistical challenge for laboratory managers. Fortunately, however, computers are available to help. Systems such as laboratory information management systems (LIMS) make easy work of managing large amounts of samples, requirements and regulations.

‘Organisations like [one of our clients] Nova Biologicals carry out around 1,500 tests per day and the workload can just explode on the whim of the regulator,’ says Thurston of Thermo Fisher Scientific. ‘The more automation that they can build in, the better. Having a computer-based system is much more reliable than paper-based.’

Dale Seabrooke, QA/QC product manager of PerkinElmer, agrees: ‘Environmental customers have been saying that they have the same pressures as everyone else – driving operational excellence, prices being limited and the market shrinking. It is really about paper replacement and becoming sample focused, not experiment focused,’ he says.

He illustrates this point with two examples from PerkinElmer’s customers. The first is a large waste water facility that has been using LabWorks for 10 years or more. ‘They were very happy with it, but a lot of what they do is sample preparation,’ explains Seabrooke. ‘The client had been using Excel to track sample preparation. The problem that they were having was that people could go in and modify the data. Electronic systems are good, but they need controls.’

The environmental lab at the facility has now installed PerkinElmer’s iLAB Laboratory Execution System (LES), which Seabrooke says means that things are now tracked and audited. ‘For them, it was about traceability, knowing who’s done what and when. It’s not just tracking sample-preparation information, but also tracking instrument-calibration and training,’ he says.

Another example was a customer’s microbiology lab, which was heavily paper-based in its workflows. The analysts wrote every result down on paper and then typed them into the lab’s system later. This type of double entry increases the chance of making errors, says Seabrooke. PerkinElmer’s solution for this lab was to change the medium that the lab staff worked with, so that the previously print-based forms became electronic versions of the same forms, which operators interacted with directly. ‘We take the forms, turn them into PDFs and render them into our LES. The PDFs at the end are not editable and so the system can also be used to track the audit trail. We try to eliminate variance,’ says Seabrooke, although he does concede that customers often still print out the resulting PDFs.

Following and tracking

Following and tracking processes have become increasingly important for informatics to achieve in environmental and other labs.

As Michael Gannon, managing director of Orbis Information Systems, which specialises in implementing LIMS for customers, mostly Thermo Fisher Scientific products, explains: ‘The market has changed. Most companies have had LIMS systems in the past so they are more aware of what they can do now. Budgets are tight, but customers are much more informed about what systems can do. Whereas in the past the systems were seen as data-entry systems and repositories, customers are now looking at using them to improve practices. Customers require minimum data entry and access from different devices, including iPads.’

In terms of the sample, the first part of this process is managing the sample-collection schedule and tracking the sample’s journey from water source to lab. ‘With environmental testing, samples generally come from far and wide,’ notes Gannon. ‘Outside the lab, quite a complex management system is required involving districts and zones. Sometimes samples come in via other methods such as couriers, so tracking is important.’

To help with this tracking, systems might provide pre-barcoded labels, so that once samples are taken they are fully traceable. This also helps labs to track what happens to samples afterwards. Sometimes samples need to be kept for a certain time period and the laboratory system can track when samples can be disposed of.

Back in the lab, informatics tools help environmental labs by planning and distributing the workload, ensuring that samples are tested within a required time period of sampling. Operators also need to be able to see which samples are pending.

Informatics is becoming more heavily involved in the testing process itself too, beyond tracking samples and collecting results.

‘Full traceability is needed on samples, results, and instrumentation used,’ notes Gannon. He adds that most LIMS already manage the operators and what they are trained to do. ‘If they are not qualified, then the system should not allow them to do the analysis,’ he explains. ‘Systems should not just capture results, but enforce rules,’ he adds.

This might mean forcing step-by-step operations, and requiring operators to add a digital signature. In addition, if a result exceeds limits or a sample is too late in reaching the analysis stage, a new routine kicks in automatically to retest or resample, for example. ‘Alerting people to limits is much better done by computers than by people,’ observes Thurston of Thermo Fisher Scientific.

‘The way that people work in labs is much more driven by formal methodology than it used to be,’ he continues, explaining that informatics helps with this. ‘Users follow steps and are prompted on what to do next. They don’t have to learn every detail in tests every time more requirements are added. They can’t be expected to remember everything.’

Integration and reporting

In addition to controlling the operators and the running of the tests, laboratory systems are also required to manage the instruments. And these themselves are changing and becoming more integrated with each other and with the systems, a process that is also reducing the potential for errors.

The other part of the process that is becoming more integrated is the reporting. This is important for the customers of the lab – the water company and the consumer. Water companies need paperless ways to get secure access to results as soon as they are signed off by the lab, which informatics tools can provide. Thurston gave the example of how one of Thermo Fisher Scientific’s customers, United Utilities in the UK, publishes its analytical lab data on its water quality website daily for consumers to view. This data comes from the LIMS.

The other people who need good access to laboratory data and to evidence that testing has been done in the proper manner, are the independent auditors.

Beyond LIMS and ELNs

Many of these features and requirements take informatics tools well beyond the traditional roles of LIMS and ELNs. Indeed a range of recent product releases in this area have new names to reflect this.

‘We call it our Enterprise Laboratory Platform (ELP),’ says Gabathuler about LabWare’s system. ‘It allows us to have one seamless framework and platform. A lot of functionality that customers want could be done by a LIMS or an ELN. In different parts of the business, users will have different requirements. For us it’s one platform and also includes instrument integration,’ he explains.

‘Our aim is to provide a comprehensive ELP that embraces a much wider range of functionality and technology support than traditional LIMS or ELN – and in a way that ensures that our systems always add value, and never become obsolete.’

Similarly, through a recent series of acquisitions and internal developments, PerkinElmer has developed its Laboratory Execution System (LES). ‘A LIMS is passive, but this is active so it can catch problems earlier and this can cascade to operational excellence,’ notes Seabrooke.

The company’s latest move in this area is a strategic relationship with Tibco Software, which provides the Tibco Spotfire analytics and data discovery platform. ‘Now we have within our portfolio probably the best visualisation software in this market. It is all about visualisation and mobility, and putting decision metrics in front of people who need to see them,’ he comments.

Mobility and the cloud

Mobility itself is another emerging trend in informatics. In a minor way, the practice of collecting data out in the field on handheld devices has been around for years with devices such as PDAs. Now, however, there is far higher adoption of mobile devices in daily lives. There are also pressures on space in busy labs and this will drive adoption, according to Gannon of Orbis.

‘Mobile has been life changing in the consumer world. Its adoption has been much faster there than in industry, but industry has to be cautious and vendors have to put more money into using it. There are always concerns about security, for example, if devices get stolen. Vendors don’t have solutions fully enabled on those devices yet, but if it is happening in daily life it will happen in industry eventually.’

Indeed he believes that the push for mobile data entry will help labs to become fully paperless within 10 years.

Another trend that he predicts is the use of hosting services and cloud computing. ‘Environmental companies want to drive down IT costs so will look at hosting options. More and more informatics businesses are being asked to provide hosting,’ he notes, although he adds that some security concerns remain among customers about putting their data in the cloud.

The future

So what is the situation today? ‘In practice, labs have a long way to go in moving from a partially paperless solution to fully paperless,’ says Gannon. ‘The technology is there. It’s down to implementation.

‘Resistance to going fully paperless is possibly down to needing capital spend. If you go into a lab today, that’s pretty much doing the same business that it was doing four years ago; the case for change is not great,’ he continues. ‘And LIMS systems are pretty ground-breaking so customers don’t change easily. Clients tend to upgrade every three to five years.’

Nonetheless there is plenty of change going on in the environmental testing industry. As Thurston of Thermo Fisher Scientific observes: ‘Data volumes and the number of different tests carried out will continue to grow and analytical chemists are going to spend much more of their time developing tests.’

He also anticipates a trend towards much smarter instruments. For example, he envisages people doing full-spectrum mass spectrometry. This would mean that even if a particular material wasn’t looked for at the time of testing, analysts could go back and look for it in the spectrum at a later date.

‘The challenge is moving away from storing physical samples to storing data,’ Thurston comments. ‘A LIMS needs to be able to interact with data much more strongly than it used to.’

Addressing all these issues, will help environmental testing companies to manage their processes more efficiently and to continue to ensure that when you turn on the tap what you get is drinking water.