Setting up a Laboratory Information Management System.
Every laboratory needs a system to manage the information they produce. Identifying the different components of a LIMS and their purpose helps develop the system that best reflects the lab's unique workflows.
The adoption of a Laboratory Information Management System or LIMS can be one of the most effective ways to increase the productivity of a laboratory. The purpose of this page is to help scientists and laboratory personnel who do not currently use a LIMS analyze the potential benefits of adopting a LIMS. For organizations that already use a LIMS, this article may give them an opportunity to reassess the ways in which they are using their existing systems.
This article is written for laboratories involved in basic research, research and development, process development, quality control in manufacturing, or environmental monitoring. These laboratories are typically found in the biotechnology industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the chemical and energy industries, agricultural research, food processing, and similar industries. However, LIMS systems for clinical laboratories involved in diagnostics meet a different set of objectives and comply with different regulations that are beyond the scope of this post. Clinical labs interested in exploring LIMS options can consult a recent article published by Lab Manager.
In order for a lab to successfully adopt a LIMS system, it is necessary to properly understand what a LIMS is. A good way to achieve this is to break this long name into its different components.
A LIMS is a tool to manage “laboratory information”. The main purpose of a LIMS system is to capture all sorts of scientific data produced or used by a laboratory. Most labs need to manage three categories of data: inventory, samples, and test results. Some labs that work with animals or plants have specific data management needs.
Poor management of laboratory supplies can be a costly mistake. Not having enough supplies on hand can delay experiments. Ordering more than the necessary supplies leads to wasteful expenses as supplies with limited shelf lives need to be discarded. Ordering the wrong supplies can lead to reproducibility issues.
Inventory management is therefore a key component of a LIMS system. It should provide lab members with a list of standard supplies, keep track of the available quantities of supplies in the lab along with the expiration date. Finally, it should facilitate the ordering of supplies and keep track of the supply procurement process.
Another important function of laboratory information systems (LIS) is to keep track of samples. Sample tracking means knowing the content and location of every test tube and other containers in the laboratory. This can be a daunting task, as even a medium-sized laboratory can process thousands of samples a month.
A robust sample tracking system relies on two components: the definition of sample types and a solid sample labeling solution.
Defining different types of samples [link] makes it possible to specify what data need to be associated with samples to properly describe the sample. It should be expected that different laboratories will define sample types based on the type of experiments they perform.
A robust sample labeling system makes it possible to easily print labels that can be affixed to any kind of sample in use in the laboratory. At the minimum, the labels should include a sample name printed in clear and a 1D or 2D barcode (also known as DataMatrix) encoding a unique identifier. Laboratory personnel should be able to scan the barcode and retrieve the detailed sample description from the laboratory information system.
In order to manage samples, one needs to associate samples with locations so that laboratory personnel knows where to find them. A laboratory information system needs to allow laboratory managers to define storage locations. At the minimum, this should include laboratory freezers as they tend to have complex structures involving multiple layers from compartments, racks, drawers, boxes, and all the way to cells allowing the storage of a single tube.
Ideally, the storage management system should be flexible enough to allow users to define other storage locations. Any place that can hold a sample on a permanent or temporary basis should be included in the storage model. This includes refrigerators, cold rooms, incubators, shelves in cabinets, and even benches.
Finally, one of the main functions of a laboratory information system is to associate test results with samples. When the result of a test is a simple data point like a concentration, it is possible to record the test result in the sample record directly. However, it is increasingly common that test results initially come in the form of large datasets collected on a single sample or on a batch of samples. A microscopy experiment producing a series of images or a movie is an example of a dataset associated with a single sample. Results from a sequencing experiment are likely to include raw data from multiple samples. In these situations, the LIMS needs to ensure data integrity through relations between samples, raw datasets, and processed data.
Many labs work with laboratory animals. Others work with plants. While these “objects” are generally not considered as “samples”, they could be when the LIMS is flexible enough to allow the definition of a broad range of sample types. However, laboratory animal require specific identification solutions.
A laboratory can generate a great deal of information. Too much information can be overwhelming if not properly managed. One cannot underestimate the importance of underlying laboratory management policies for the successful adoption of a LIMS. A LIMS does not manage information by itself. It only helps enforce management strategies defined by the laboratory stakeholders but it does not define these management strategies.
It is recommended to engage all the stakeholders in the definition of the management policies to maximize the buy-in and the overall success of the LIMS deployment. Different categories of personnel have different perspectives to contribute to the management of the lab.
- Research scientists may be involved in the definition of sample types and other strategies ensuring data integrity throughout the experimental workflows.
- Executives may be involved in setting up performance objectives and metrics that will be calculated from data stored in the LIMS.
- Laboratory managers may be involved in the development of protocols, selection of supplies.
- Laboratory technicians may be more involved in space allocation and storage space management while providing feedback on contributions of other lab members.
The management of laboratory information calls for a system approach. There are a lot of components that need to work together in order to ensure the successfully implement information management policies.
Nothing illustrates this point better than the sample tracking challenge. Tracking sample requires the generation of unique sample identification numbers. It extensively relies on quality sample labels that can be affixed to every type of test tubes and sample containers used by the lab. It requires a label printer that can print on these labels using a technology that will make the labels durable in all the environments in which the samples may be placed. It requires a barcode scanner compatible with the format and size of the barcoded labels found on the labels. Read our Ultimate Guide to Laboratory Labels for more information.
Laboratory automation is another aspect of laboratory operations that highlights the need for a system approach to information management. Many labs have heavily invested in automated equipment only to realize how much high-throughput instruments are data-hungry. Laboratory automation starts with process automation before calling for automating physical operations.
Every laboratory needs a Laboratory Information Management System to ensure it runs smoothly and efficiently. While such a system can be put in place by combining standard office solutions, it is often worthwhile to consider the adoption of specialized software developed to support the management of laboratory information.
There are two main categories of software solutions:
- LIMS Solutions: This category of products is focused on sample tracking, inventory management, and management of data associated with laboratory samples.
- Electronic Laboratory Notebook (ELN) solutions: electronic lab notebooks are designed to capture experiments, the interpretation of results, and laboratory workflows.
We have reviewed separately the top LIMS Solutions and the main ELN options in 2020. While it is common to consider these two types of software applications separately, the boundary between LIMS and ELN is becoming increasingly blurry as all solution providers understand how they complement each other. As a result, many products that were initially positioned as LIMS solutions have gained ELN features over the years. Similarly, many ELN applications have recently gained LIMS features.
Laboratory Information Management Systems
Strategies for Success
Analyze the information your lab produces and depends on. Set the policies to manage it. Put in place systems to enforce these policies. Choose the software solutions to make the systems run smoothly.Start Today