Laboratory Information and Management Systems (LIMS)
Laboratories are individual in terms of their areas of responsibility and often also in their established workflows. This is an initial situation that initially speaks against the sensible use of IT systems that are supposed to support workflow and data management. Nevertheless, specialised information systems - so-called LIMS - have established themselves on the market, competing to cover the complex requirements of laboratories for internal organisation as well as for the management and evaluation of the accruing data. They achieve their goal by offering application modules along a generalised workflow in a pre-structured, standardised form and this across a wide range of sectors. Such process steps range from sample registration to the specification of the scope of the examination or other work tasks and the data acquisition of analysis results to reporting.
However, the performance of an IT system for laboratories depends heavily on the ability to adapt the available programme functions to the specifics of the laboratory in question. This must be possible within the framework of the standard software package and at reasonable cost.
The decision to use a LIMS in the laboratory is rarely based on the rationalisation aspect alone. The fulfilment of documentation obligations, early detection of quality problems with the possibility of countermeasures or high information availability of the laboratory data in research, for the operation, the customer or other partners come to the fore.
What is a LIMS?
The term LIMS is an established term and stands for Laboratory Information and Management System. The exact definition for the IT application LIMS depends on the individual perspective in relation to the use in the laboratory and the type of use. LIMS are only standardised to a certain extent, as they have to be used in a wide variety of areas. The adaptation of a LIMS to the individual needs of an organisation and its tasks is therefore - to a certain extent - a normal process and at the same time a necessity in order to achieve acceptance by the user. Despite all the variations in the spectrum of use, commonalities can nevertheless be found in the various LIM systems, which leads to the following definition:
A laboratory information and management system (LIMS) is an IT application that supports laboratory operations with regard to the administrative and coordinative tasks of sample processing as well as with regard to the recording and evaluation of determined analytical data.
Laboratory IT extensions
LIMS applications are sometimes supplemented by other specialised software applications, depending on the orientation of the laboratory and its tasks. These include solutions that are grouped together with LIMS under the term "laboratory IT applications":
- ELN (Electronic Laboratory Notebook)
Database system for planning and managing experiments in the form of an electronic laboratory journal. The ELN focus is often on the management of unstructured data of experiments or syntheses, but also of recipes. Dialogue forms are supported, which allow entries in customised forms, tables or large free-text fields, up to the entry of reaction equations or images. ELN systems are often used in research and development areas.
- LES (Laboratory Execution System)
Software application to support the systematic, documented execution of analyses, preparation steps or reagent production in the laboratory. In the process, the user is guided in dialogue with notes or instructions and at the same time prompted to enter the relevant data for the respective work step manually or electronically (SOP-oriented dialogue forms). LES applications are often found in regulated areas such as the pharmaceutical industry but also in other laboratories with high documentation requirements.
- SDMS (Scientific Data Management System)
Database application for managing scientific laboratory data (raw data, results files, documents). The software applications are often geared towards the orderly long-term storage of complex analytical data such as spectra or chromatograms and, in addition to data acquisition and transfer, also include data visualisation and sometimes the creation of reports.
SDMS functionality is also partly found in some LIMS products, which often relies on XML-based data storage, for example in the standardised AnIML format (Analytical Information Markup Language).
LIMS, as database-oriented application systems, require powerful IT technology to efficiently support sample processing and to store the accruing data in a structured, evaluable form. These are:
- A server system that holds the LIMS database and on which the LIMS application software is also installed. The database and the application are often distributed over several servers, which can be operated internally or externally by IT service providers or in the cloud. Common products such as ORACLE or MS SQL Server are usually used as databases, more rarely open source solutions. The server hardware typically uses Windows Server or UNIX / LINUX server operating systems.
- Workstation computers, i.e. PC systems that are usually connected to the server system via a local network. The PCs are usually operated with MS Windows and offer the LIMS application to the user with a graphical user interface. The LIMS is often structured as a client / server programme, i.e. the application part and database part are separate and communicate via a network.
Various systems are now also based entirely on web technologies. As a result, more and more LIMS applications can be operated in parts or completely via web browsers, which facilitates their use as cloud-based solutions. Step by step, many LIMS manufacturers are also making parts of their applications available on mobile devices such as tablets.
- Network infrastructure, i.e. local and sometimes also wide area networks (LAN, WAN) mainly based on Ethernet. TCP/IP is used as the most common network protocol. Servers and clients are interconnected via the network infrastructure so that the LIMS user has access to all necessary resources released for him.
In addition to these basic components, there are also more advanced aspects of a LIMS realisation. These range from networking with higher-level planning systems, such as ERP or MES, to the integration of customers or suppliers via the internet, for example via their own web portals.
The user who uses the LIMS in his laboratory focuses less on the technology than on the functionality. He is confronted with a software system that offers him an individual range of functions via selection menus, which he can use for his daily work. Essentially, the following basic modules can be found:
- Order registration and sample registration
- Specification of the scope of testing or examination
- Support with sample distribution and processing
- Results data collection (manual, electronic)
- Release of the examination results
- Reporting and evaluation
- Master data management
In addition, there is a wide range of other functions that are offered in the LIMS basic package or as an extension.
In most cases, the basic configuration of the LIMS is adapted to the individual characteristics of a laboratory in the course of a conception and implementation phase. Different procedures are used, which either provide for steps that build on each other or agile techniques that carry out iterative adjustments until the finished LIMS module is ready.
LIMS applications often develop further when used in the laboratory, up to highly specialised systems. If only the basic functions are used at the beginning, special evaluations, statistics, test equipment management or quality control charts are added later. In some cases, additional modules are also available, e.g. for document management, stability testing or quotation and invoice generation. Special laboratory IT solutions such as ELN, LES or SDMS can supplement LIMS applications or, in some cases, be operated autonomously.
The integration of peripherals, above all the connection of analytical devices for online acquisition of electronic measurement data, is an essential step towards increasing work efficiency and minimising errors. However, the heterogeneity of the device interfaces and the data formats create certain hurdles in the realisation of such device connections to LIMS. Therefore, there are intensive efforts to standardise communication protocols and transmission formats. Examples are communication standards such as SiLA or OPC UA as well as the XML-based data format AnIML for data exchange and storage.
Another high potential benefit lies in the electronic exchange of data with other IT systems in the company or also across the board. This includes, in particular, the integration of production planning and warehouse management systems, business management-oriented applications, but also of external systems, e.g. of the client or of public authorities. However, it often takes several years to completely realise such a highly integrated application landscape.