One of the main challenges facing the modern lab is optimizing operations and improving performance, while maintaining and maximizing quality and, at the same time, meeting necessary compliance requirements and regulations. At the organization-level, innovation and staying within budget are also high priorities. So how can labs meet these targets, in the face of increasingly complex workflows and accelerating operating costs?
Laboratory informatics systems (IS) provide a digital solution to help labs alleviate bottlenecks by removing laborious and error-prone steps in the workflow, such as maintaining and organizing data, quality control and reporting. Digital IS solutions help science-based organizations to standardize these processes by fully integrating systems across different labs and sites, improving connectivity, and therefore supporting the research, development and manufacturing lifecycle.
More and more organizations are realizing the power of lab IS. In 2021, the global lab informatics market was valued at USD 3.21 billion, and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.9% from 2022 to 2030. The market was dominated by the laboratory information management system (LIMS) segment in 2021, as demand for fully integrated services in the life science and research industries continues to increase.
Many labs have invested in their LIMS and know its benefits to the organization: LIMS help users keep track of data associated with samples, experiments, lab workflows and instruments. They often include master data management capabilities, reporting of sample lifecycles, system and security admin, schedule and inventory management, instrument information, storage and logistics. The LIMS solutions available today are often designed for specific types of lab workflows, such as research and development (R&D), manufacturing, QC or bioanalysis.
Electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are another IS solution that labs are increasingly relying upon to streamline their processes. The core functionality of early ELNs focused on digitizing note taking, allowing users to record and store experimental results. Current generation ELNs deliver this function, but also can automate the data review process and allow cross-functional collaboration across teams, as well as record and maintain intellectual property documentation. Together with LIMS, ELNs bring enormous value to the organization as a whole.
But with so many options already available, finding the right IS solution for the lab can seem like an overwhelming challenge, not to mention making sure implementation of the chosen system is successful. In this article we highlight some of the key considerations when choosing or replacing a LIMS or ELN and provide tips for how to roll out the system successfully across the organization.
Which IS solution is right for me?
Chances are if you have decided to invest in a LIMS or ELN system, you will have already considered your lab’s requirements and identified where these solutions could address those needs. This is an important place to start when identifying which system to choose. By looking at where the inefficiencies in the workflow are, you can recognize the features you need from a LIMS or ELN. For example, if a lab often collaborates with external organizations, choosing an ELN with optimized data sharing capabilities should be on the priority list.
It’s also important to become familiar with relevant regulatory and legal requirements for your data, and the software used to manage it. These can generate the need for functionality to manage chain of custody, signatures and approvals, data integrity, data availability and consent management, to name a few.
Other considerations include quality of relationship with the vendor, reliable tech support, scope for upgrades and flexibility, security and ease of use. A LIMS or ELN with a user-friendly and intuitive interface will facilitate adoption among teams and is more likely to lead to successful implementation. There is no value to an organization investing in a system that is not a good fit, so taking these considerations into account allows decision makers to be assured that the system they choose is the right one.
Ensuring implementation success
Often when an organization decides to purchase a lab IS solution such as a LIMS or ELN, the justification is valid and the underlying technology is understood. However, the wider implications on the lab’s current and future ways of working are often less well considered. So, regardless of the potential success of the implementation project, the resulting system could fail to meet all expectations. Here are three simple steps to follow to ensure that the new system addresses the lab’s needs, and those of the company:
1. It’s not just about the product. When it comes down to it, most of the top LIMS and ELN solutions differ relatively little in the functions they provide. What companies should pay more attention to is the additional services on offer, such as implementation methodology and long-term support mechanisms. It is also a good idea to assess the future development opportunities of the system, and how the vendor and the solution can support your needs further down the line. Thinking about these factors at the beginning will make sure that the IS solution continues to bring success as the organization evolves.
2. Who should be involved? You will need to carefully select the team that will be involved in onboarding the new system and shaping how the solution will perform. Take the time to ensure that everyone on your project team is a committed stakeholder, rather than assembling a team based on who is most available. You might also consider working with a third party, such as an IS consultant, who will have these specific skills from years of experience doing this for labs just like yours. They can bring invaluable experience and anticipate common roadblocks before they occur and provide recommendations specific to your labs. If using an external consultant is right for your business, do thorough background research and choose a consultant with a proven track record of successful IS implementation.
3. Invest sufficient time, energy and resources to all stages of the implementation. Set a timeline and stick to it (as well you can). For LIMS and ELN implementations, for example, a 6 to 12-month timescale is typical, although this will vary dependent on scope and complexity. There are multiple ways to manage an implementation, from traditional waterfall to fully-agile methods. Choosing the right approach is a whole different task in itself, regardless of which route you choose. Ensure you regularly assess the original estimates, resource needs, change requests and laboratory impact. Informatics projects always create a generous amount of questions and issues alike, so be prepared and create a steering group that is empowered to make decisions.
The continuous growth of the lab IS market can make choosing and implementing a LIMS or ELN platform seem complicated. Indeed, it is not a project that can be rushed into, and time and a certain amount of resources are needed to ensure successful rollout of a new system.
But, by focusing on the wider company goals and the role of the lab within the organization, and involving the right team of people, success is always achievable. Bringing in an external consultant can help ensure successful implementation by offering advice over which IS solution is right for your lab / organization and providing support throughout implementation.
For this partnership to work, however, the organization must fully understand the problem they are trying to solve, and make sure the consultant is aligned with the problem statement. The whole project team needs to be ready to collaborate and adapt to working with ongoing communication with the consulting team.