Transforming the laboratory

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Sophia Ktori concludes her two-part feature on the development of LIMS and ELN technology

Digital transformation continues to impact our lives in ways we previously couldn’t have imagined, comments Trish Meek, director of marketing at Thermo Fisher Scientific. ‘The connected devices we see in the consumer world are influencing how we think about the communication of instruments, software and platforms. From a user’s perspective, information should pass effortlessly between platforms and devices, with no need for the user to intervene.’

This drive to interconnectivity is similarly impacting on the evolution of informatics systems for laboratories. ‘The goal for Thermo Fisher Scientific is to develop platforms that will enable complete laboratory integration and connectivity, and this impacts on how software systems such as LIMS, electronic laboratory notebook and scientific data management system (SDMS) software will be designed,’ Meek states.

To this end, the firm foresees a laboratory infrastructure supported by an end-to-end data management system, derived from a LIMS-type infrastructure, which can connect scientific data and insights with the management of instruments, and consumables through the scientific workflow. ‘We are at an exciting time, where technology has evolved to where we can help our customers create a connected ecosystem that accelerates science and enables laboratory productivity,’ she said.

LIMS evolution

This overarching ecosystem won’t make LIMS systems obsolete – all laboratories will need an effective functionality for managing samples, instruments and test scheduling – but such software will have to evolve to enable true digital transformation at the laboratory, and ultimately enterprise scale, comments Richard Milne, vice president, general manager for digital science at Thermo Fisher Scientific. ‘This is a much bigger concept than just the development of LIMS software applications, although the software sits in the middle of it,’ he said.

More broadly, the goal is to be able to deploy digital technologies to accelerate the efficiency of science through the automated flow of data between parties as quickly as possible, and also to drive increased productivity from assets, including lab instrumentation, software packages and people.

‘Our customers are still buying software products, such as LIMS, as point solutions, but are increasingly interested in the concept of working more holistically across the four basic pillars of a lab, which are the software, the instruments, the consumables/reagents, and services,’ Milne continues.

‘No one piece of equipment, or software, is going to achieve this process efficiency across the lab, it will be a combinatorial effort and effect, and we are being asked how can LIMS capabilities be used to connect instrumentation, manage assets and plug into service arrangements,’ effectively, how the utilisation of man and machines can be optimised to derive maximum value from hardware, software and the resulting data.

It is this interconnectivity that will underpin lab management, and which is the driver for Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Platform for Science model, Milne notes. The firm is working with customers to develop and implement practical offerings of digital transformation through an evolved LIMS infrastructure. Importantly, Milne says, that shift to holistic lab management, integration and communication will commonly have to be retrofit.

‘It’s simply not feasible to rip and replace, so digital transformation must be relevant to established, multi-vendor-installed brownfield sites. ‘The platform that we are developing will support different deployment spaces, which will then allow instrument connectivity, so that both the scientific data and the telemetric data from every type of instrumentation and lab machine can be moved up into the software environment, and then piped to wherever it will demonstrate most efficiency or best effect.’

Move away from the technological issues associated with evolving a laboratory software substructure that can act as the central point for interconnectivity and communication, and the hurdles are largely business- and mindset-related, he continues.

‘Companies need to focus on their organisational dynamics, and implement forward-thinking executive oversight and leadership. We are seeing a high level of involvement in such initiatives in the pharma industry, where the benefits of seamless interconnectivity on laboratory operation and efficiency are evident.’

The future of the laboratory

Thermo Fisher Scientific is now working with customers to engineer the nuts and bolts of that digital evolution. ‘We mustn’t underestimate the amount of work that has to be done,’ Milne acknowledges. ‘We are still nearer to the beginning than to the end, and part of the overall process is evaluating how we can re-architect software to facilitate true digital transformation, so that our customers can think beyond a single software application or package.’

Already operating multi-billion dollar instrument, consumables, software and service businesses means that Thermo Fisher Scientific is ideally placed to drive that transformation, Milne believes.

‘Our relationship with customers goes beyond vendor and purchaser. Instead, customers are coming to us to help them solve problems, and to build connections and synapses in laboratories, so that it is possible to integrate, interconnect and maximise the value of instrumentation and software from multiple vendors.’

In this future lab environment LIMS will still exist, he continues. ‘However, rather than offer functionality as a standalone, discrete software application, LIMS will act, or be positioned, as a digital operating system, effectively providing an enabling software environment to maximise the value of all parts of laboratory processes, including collaboration, with internal and external laboratories and departments.’

The drive to develop technologies that will enable seamless integration of all experimental and analytical data, metadata and supporting business information applies to laboratories in diverse industries, from food and beverage to petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals, notes Rob Brown, vice president, product marketing at Dotmatics. The UK-based company has developed a suite of scalable enterprise solutions for wide-ranging applications, including chemistry and biologics database management, and high-throughput or high-content screening.

The Dotmatics ELN has been developed to facilitate that transfer of information between and within laboratory operations. An ELN and LIMS will often work hand-in-hand to manage different types of data, so that context can be retained and combined, Brown states. ‘Whereas the LIMS will capture the structured, raw data out of instruments, an ELN may be harnessed to help translate data into scientific context.’ And while an ELN will typically record unstructured workflows and experimentally derived data, the line between LIMS, ELN and scientific data management system (SDMS) does sometimes have blurred edges, he notes. Each type of software may have crossover functionality.

‘There’s a kind of three-way overlap here,’ he stated ‘Now we have notebook templates for some disciplines that are extremely structured, such as medicinal chemistry, which will require a very fixed set of information for every experiment. At the other extreme, we have molecular biology notebook templates that are really much more ad hoc and freeform. One lab may want to capture their research-based experimental workflows into an ELN, whereas others have a much broader definition of what they expect from their LIMS’ functionality, and will look for ELN capabilities within their LIMS, in addition to the ability to manage samples and analytical workflows and results.’

In February Dotmatics announced a partnership with TetraScience, through which the companies aim to develop an informatics-driven process that will allow laboratories to automate laboratory functionality and data management. Ultimately that informatics process may allow scientists to put plates on to a reader (for example) and just ‘hit go’ Brown says. ‘The software combination will capture and clean the data from the instrument, create a new experiment in a notebook, and populate that experiment with all of the instrument and metadata, as well as results, and potentially carry out data analyses. This process will further blur the boundaries of functionality between ELN, LIMS, and integrate completely with instrument software, he adds. ‘It takes intelligent informatics systems to achieve this, to deal with the instrumentation and results, and to clean that data ready for analysis.’

Additional drivers of integrated informatics and automation include the sheer volume of data that are now being generated and can’t be managed manually, and increased collaboration with external partners and contact research organisations (CROs), Brown adds. Experiments may be designed by one organisation, but then carried out in the laboratories of another. ‘This highlights the imperative for usability and accessibility of software, such as ELNs and to some extent LIMS, especially when considering that partners may be working in different native languages and with different in-house practices and protocols.’

Helping firms configure and install informatics software systems to work in an existing LIMS infrastructure and help automate experimental design and recording, data capture and analysis, is largely a matter of getting the right people on board, Brown said. ‘It’s a change management issue in many cases, which is sometimes harder than physical technical implementation.’

Software vendors stress the importance of working with customers to develop and fine-tune new generations of LIMS and other laboratory software that will drive laboratory efficiency and proficiency. Exchanging experiences can be a valuable part of deriving the most from both established and new informatics releases. LabWare will be hosting six major annual Customer Education Conferences (CECs) this year, to cover its European, North American, Asia Pacific, South American, Chinese and African markets.

The conferences, which attracts more than 1,500 LabWare LIMS/ELN delegates, are an ideal forum for customers to top up training and knowledge about LabWare products and services, gain expertise, and network with hundreds of users across different industries, to compare experiences using a common LabWare LIMS and ELN platform, said Graham Langrish, sales manager for life sciences.

Cross-fertilisation of ideas

‘The LabWare, LIMS and ELN solution is a single, holistic enterprise laboratory platform that can be equally applied across multiple industries and disciplines. While we run industry-focused sessions at the CECs to provide users with specialist knowledge and updates, the meetings also provide an ideal networking opportunity for users across industrial sectors. From pharma and biobanking, to contract labs and the water industry, laboratories across different industries often have very similar workflow issues. The CECs encourage a cross-fertilisation of ideas, problem solving and optimisation.’

The LabWare 7 platform comprises LIMS, ELN, Laboratory Execution System (LES) and instrument interfacing that work together as a single integrated, configurable enterprise solution that provides all the functionality of these common platforms, combined with required flexibility and the assurance of regulatory data integrity and security, claims John Gabathuler, the firm’s industry and environment director. ‘As an enterprise system, LabWare provides a comprehensive single standard product suite that applies across industries, meaning that our customers can significantly reduce their scientific software landscape by minimising the number of applications and number of integrations.’

The software is regularly updated with enhancements, and new functionality incrementally as laboratory business, technology, integration and compliance requirements evolve. ‘We undertake a continuous cycle of innovation and development, in conjunction with our customer base and close contact with the market,’ Gabathuler states. ‘This allows us to add in solutions for managing and running ever-more complex, and less structured workflows, both in specific industries, and across industries, for example in the bioanalytical sector.’

Preconfigured solution templates

The LabWare Enterprise Platform offers diverse functionality preconfigured into what Langrish calls industry solution templates, and component solutions. These make it easy to configure the system for the more typical workflows, such as environmental monitoring or stabilities studies, which may span different industries. Industry solutions are also provided for parallel, but non-workflow-related activities. ‘Consider label printing, for example,’ Langrish said. ‘Many laboratories across industries need to be able to print a wide range of barcode labels, but not all LIMS and ELNs provide that capability, and the customer will commonly have to purchase and integrate additional software. We have a suitable industry component solution that allows customers to save time and obtain a better standard solution out of the box.’

The LabWare platform is flexible and versatile to allow customers to leverage as much, or as little, of the standard and supported content as they require, Gabathuler continues. ‘It also provides customers with a seamless process for benefiting from new capabilities and functionality when it’s time for their laboratories to expand or diversify. This is equally applicable when an organisation deploys to additional sites, or newly acquired businesses with laboratories carrying out different types of workflows, such as extending out into R&D. The labs themselves can readily incorporate more of LabWare LIMS and ELNs’ standard functionality to manage new laboratory workflows, and simplify operation using LabWare Visual Workflows.’

Continual improvements to the platform mean changes or upgrades are incremental, and largely non-disruptive, Langrish suggests, adding that he wants to improve business functionality, and provide for the complexity of bioanalytical labs. The current iteration, LabWare 7, has more than 500 enhancements when compared with the previous version.

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