LIMS – Laboratory Information and Management Systems
Laboratories are individual in relation to their fields of activity and often also in their established work processes. This is an initial situation that initially speaks against the sensible use of IT systems that support workflow and data management. Nevertheless, specialized information systems – so-called LIMS – have established themselves on the market to cover the complex requirements of laboratories for internal organization as well as for the administration and evaluation of data. They achieve their goal by offering application modules along a generalized workflow in a pre-structured, standardized form and this across a wide range of industries. Such process steps range from sample registration to the specification of the scope of the examination or other work tasks and the collection of data from analysis results to reporting.
The performance of an IT system for laboratories, however, depends heavily on the ability to adapt the available program functions to the particularities of the respective laboratory. This must be possible within the framework of the standard package and at reasonable costs.
The decision to use a LIMS in the laboratory is rarely based solely on the rationalization aspect. The fulfilment of the documentation obligations, early recognition of quality problems with the possibility of counteracting them or high availability of laboratory data for research, 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 point of view with regard to the use in the laboratory and the type of use. LIMS are only standardized to a certain degree, since they have to be used in a wide variety of areas. The adaptation of a LIMS to the individual needs of an organization and its tasks is therefore – to a certain extent – a normal process and at the same time a necessity in order to achieve user acceptance. Nevertheless, all variations of the application spectrum have common features in the different LIM systems, which leads to the following definition:
A laboratory information and management system (LIMS) is an IT application that supports the laboratory operation with regard to the administrative and coordinative tasks of sample processing as well as the collection and evaluation of determined analysis data.
Laboratory IT extensions
Depending on the orientation of the laboratory and its tasks, LIMS applications are partly supplemented by further specialized software applications. These include solutions that are grouped together with LIMS under the term “laboratory IT applications”:
- ELN (Electronic Laboratory Notebook)
Database system for the planning and administration of experiments in the form of an electronic laboratory journal. The ELN focus is often on the administration of unstructured data of experiments or syntheses, but also of recipes. Dialog forms are supported, which allow inputs in adapted forms, tables or large free text fields, up to the capture 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 performance of analyses, preparation steps or reagent production in the laboratory. The user is guided in a dialog with notes or instructions and at the same time requested to manually or electronically enter the relevant data for the respective work step (SOP-oriented dialog 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 the administration of scientific laboratory data (raw data, result files, documents). The software applications are often designed for the orderly long-term storage of complex analysis data such as spectra or chromatograms and, in addition to data acquisition and transfer, also include data visualization and, in some cases, the generation of reports.
SDMS functionality can also be found in some LIMS products, which are often based on XML-based data storage, for example in the standardized AnIML format (Analytical Information Markup Language).
LIMS, as database-oriented application systems, require powerful IT technology in order to efficiently support sample processing and to store the resulting data in a structured, evaluable form. These are
- A server system which holds the LIMS database and on which the LIMS application software is installed. The database and the application are often distributed to several servers, which can be operated internally or externally by IT service providers or in the cloud. The database is usually based on common products such as ORACLE or MS SQL Server, and rarely on 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 normally operated with MS Windows and offer the user the LIMS application with a graphical user interface. The LIMS is often designed as a client / server program, i.e. application part and database part are separated and communicate via a network.
Various systems are now completely based on web technologies. As a result, more and more LIMS applications can be operated in parts or completely via a web browser, which facilitates the use as a cloud-based solution. Step by step, many LIMS manufacturers also provide application parts on mobile devices such as tablets.
- Network infrastructure, i.e. local and sometimes wide area networks (LAN, WAN) mainly based on Ethernet. TCP/IP is used as the most common network protocol. Servers and clients are connected to each other 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 further aspects of LIMS implementation. These range from networking with higher-level planning systems such as ERP or MES to integrating customers or suppliers via the Internet.
The user, who uses the LIMS in his laboratory, focuses less on the technology than on the functionality. He is faced 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 the investigation
- Support for sample distribution and processing
- Results data recording (manual, online)
- Release of test results
- Reporting / Evaluation
In addition, there are a number of other functions that are offered in the LIMS basic package or as extensions.
In most cases, the basic LIMS version is adapted to the individual characteristics of a laboratory in the course of a conception and implementation phase. LIMS applications often develop further in the laboratory up to highly specialized systems. If only the basic functions are used at the beginning, special evaluations, statistics, gauge 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 preparation, right up to special laboratory IT solutions such as ELN, LES or SDMS, which can supplement LIMS or are sometimes operated independently.
The integration of peripherals, above all the connection of analysis devices for online data acquisition, is an essential step towards increasing work efficiency and minimizing errors. In addition, electronic data exchange with other IT systems in the company offers considerable potential benefits. This includes in particular the integration of production planning and warehouse management systems, business-oriented applications but also external systems such as those of the customer or the authorities. However, it often takes several years to completely implement such a highly integrated application landscape.