Trends in instrument-to-LIMS interfacing
As someone who has been involved in the field of laboratory-instrument interfacing for almost 20 years, I have seen a tremendous change in the sophistication and complexity of instrument-to-LIMS interfaces.
Right now, new technologies and new requirements are combining to redefine many of our concepts about what an instrument-to-LIMS interface is, what it does, and how it works. These advances in interfacing technology are helping us to create interfacing solutions that provide advanced functionality in a package that is both easier to implement and easier to use.
In the early days of instrument interfacing, when most interfaces were being custom-coded by lab personnel, it was considered good enough to have an interface that simply shuttled data from the instrument to the LIMS. Nowadays, issues such as data security, regulatory compliance, the need to manage large volumes of data efficiently, and a desire to reduce workloads, are adding additional layers of complexity to the interfacing process. Instrument-to-LIMS interfaces have evolved to the point where they can now be considered as data-management tools, not just data-transfer mechanisms.
Instrument interfaces now need to be able to retrieve sample work-lists from the LIMS, create sequences for instrument data systems, review and approve sample results, and then securely transfer the data to the LIMS. All of this needs to be accomplished within an environment that allows laboratories to meet regulatory requirements for ensuring the security and accuracy of the data reported.
Fortunately, advances in interfacing technology are allowing us to create sophisticated interfaces that not only address these requirements, but are also easier to use.
One new development is the ability to create menu items in an instrument data system, such as a Chromatography Data System, which provide direct access to the interfacing functions. The interface now appears to be a part of the application they are working with. The analyst can automatically create sequences from LIMS work-lists, run their analysis, and report sample results to their LIMS, without having to leave the instrument software. They do not need to have any special knowledge of either the interface or the LIMS, making the interface much simpler to work with.
Along with the need for instrument interfaces that are easier to use, there is a desire for solutions that are easier to implement. The answer to that challenge is to move away from interfaces that require extensive custom-coding, and instead develop configurable interfaces that provide flexibility, without requiring programming.
At Labtronics, we have introduced the concept of using set-up templates that employ a series of check-boxes and drop-down menus, to define the interface. The set-up template can quickly set default parameters, such as servers, instrument methods, databases, logon routines, etc. We have found the templates not only simplify implementation, they give an 'at-a-glance' view of how the interface is configured, making it easier to modify and maintain.
As instrument-to-LIMS interfaces become increasingly sophisticated, laboratories are realising the importance of developing a full understanding of their instrument-interfacing requirements, as part of their LIMS project.
It used to be common practice to leave instrument interfacing until the end of a project, or even to drop interfacing from a LIMS project to cut costs. Now we find that companies are recognising that a well-planned approach to instrument interfacing is fundamental to gaining the maximum benefit from their LIMS implementation.
They have learned that, more often than not, ignoring instrument-interfacing requirements during the LIMS purchase and implementation phases leads to mistakes in designing and implementing the LIMS. When the LIMS project does move to the interfacing stage, these mistakes need to be corrected, either through changes to the LIMS or by creating more complex interfaces.
Understanding instrument-interfacing requirements and options at the beginning of the LIMS project simplifies the instrument interfacing, and ensures the company receives maximum benefit by efficiently managing the transfer of data between their instruments and their LIMS.
New technologies, changing requirements, and a new awareness of the value of instrument-to-LIMS interfacing, make this a very exciting time to be involved in the interfacing industry. For laboratories that have not yet fully integrated their instruments with their LIMS, there has never been a better time to start interfacing.
Robert Pavlis is president of Labtronics Inc.