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Oracle, Linux and Lims - Programming, Installation, Consulting

Using Lims to Enhance Productivity and Improve Quality

Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) have become standard equipment in todays high volume production analytical laboratory. These computer systems increase laboratory productivity by automating the data collection, calculation, quality control and reporting processes that consume much of a chemist's work day. In addition, LIMS provides laboratory management with the real time sample status and financial reports required to more effectively manage laboratory operations in a competitive marketplace. Consequently, the laboratory is better positioned to offer customers higher quality data and faster sample turnaround, while keeping prices competitive.

Galson Laboratories purchased a LIMS in the fall of 1990. We selected our system because it was developed specifically for environmental laboratories and included all the necessary source code for easy customization. Equally important, our system was developed using a popular relational database, Oracle, running on the industry standard UNIX operating system. This adherence to open systems allowed us to purchase a relatively inexpensive PC based system to start out on, while providing for unlimited future growth if our needs changed.

The systems powerful 4GL macro language made interfacing laboratory instruments a simple project. Currently, we have connected most of our instruments to the system including Ion Chromatograph (IC), pH meter, Micro balance, Gas Chromatograph (GC), Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS), Inductively Coupled Plasma Emission Spectrometer (ICP) and Graphite Furnace. These instruments or their respective data stations are connected to LIMS via serial (RS-232) ports. Data is then transferred to the LIMS database either in real time (after each sample is run) or in a batch mode, the distinction being a function of the capabilities of the particular instrument vendor's software or the analysis itself. For example, we have found that a large percentage of GC data for PCB's must be manually reintegrated due to interferences or misidentification by the data system. Rather than send erroneous data to LIMS, we have chosen to send this data to LIMS in a batch mode after being reviewed by the chemist.

Producing EPA CLP style data packages once was a major nightmare for our GC and GC/MS laboratories. Although we have chromatography data systems to automate raw data collection and processing, each sample, standard and QC still had to be further calculated and entered on the forms by hand. The process could easily take a week or more for an average batch of 20 samples and was prone to calculation or transcription errors. With QC data calculated and charted after the fact, it was often difficult to spot problem trends and make the necessary corrections in time.

With LIMS, every aspect of CLP data processing has now been automated. We developed a complete EPA CLP forms package for handling GC and GC/MS results. This package performs all the calibration, calculation, QC and reporting functions in a matter of minutes instead of days. Quality control charts are available for printing immediately after data has been processed, allowing quick reaction to QC problems. To further ensure high quality data, the system has been configured to require various levels of managerial approval before final reports are released and reported.

When a large government contract overloaded the asbestos department with 5000 samples per month for rapid turnaround, we again turned to LIMS for help. Asbestos samples are analyzed by various microscopy methods, all of which are very labor intensive and don't leave much room for automation. By flow charting the entire process, we realized the most significant loss of time was the manual data entry of results into LIMS. At first it seemed that an electronic lab notebook on LIMS was the answer. Each analyst would enter the result on the computer as it was analyzed, eliminating the separate data entry step altogether. Only after a prototype lab notebook application was designed and tested did it become apparent that this actually took longer. The constant moving of the eyes and hands between the microscope and computer slowed the analyst and was more fatiguing than the old writing in the notebook method. Worried that production would actually decrease, we abandoned this idea for a redesigned lab notebook page with bar codes pre-printed for the various types of asbestos. The analyst circles the correct bar coded result and a data entry person scans the bar code into LIMS later. Not only is data entry faster, but much more accurate since typographical errors are virtually nonexistent.

We have seen similar improvements in other areas of the business as well. For years our client services representatives relied on a system where each person maintained a personal logbook of the customer calls they had taken. A typical notation would include the customer's name, company, phone number, the nature of the call, time and date. The representative taking the call was then responsible for following through on the call. This system worked well when the laboratory was small but we began to have problems as the laboratory grew and the number of calls increased. It was particularly difficult for another representative to fill in when someone was out since there was no central database for recording calls and the logbook notations were often sketchy at best. As a result, it became increasingly more difficult to maintain the high level of customer service our clients had grown accustomed to.

Our solution was CSMENU, a custom designed client services application on LIMS. The heart of CSMENU is the call tracking screen where each call is logged and automatically assigned a tracking number. The call record is marked with a status of 'NEED' upon entry, then after the representative completes the customers request, they change the call status to 'DONE'. Now at the press of a key, we have an accurate accounting of which customers still need attention and why. To ensure all call backs are made by the promised date, a daily report is generated listing 'NEED' status calls sorted by the promised call back date.

The CSMENU application has specific fields for recording the type of call, such as for pricing, sample status or technical information, as well as space for free form text. If the call is for a project where bottles must be sent to the client, pressing the page up key brings up the bottle prep screen. Here information about the number and types of bottles to ship is recorded and a packing list is printed. If the call is for sample status, pressing the page down key brings up a list of that client's submissions for the last 90 days. Pressing a key selects the samples of interest. From here, it is possible to instantly display sample information for these samples, sample status within the laboratory and validated results if they are available. Prior to LIMS, assembling this information required phone calls to each department manager and/or a trip to the files while the customer waited on hold.

These are just a few examples how installing a LIMS has enabled our laboratory to realize significant increases in productivity for most areas of laboratory operations. We had record profits for 1992, yet our staffing requirements have been reduced by 20%. This drastic performance improvement is largely due to the elimination of time consuming and error prone hand calculations and data entry. In addition, less than 2% of all reports are returned from QC for corrections, down from 20% previously. As a result, we've been able to offer customers quicker turnaround, higher quality results, and better overall services while still keep prices competitive.

This paper was originally presented at the Water Environment Federation, Laboratory Specialty Conference in Santa Clara, CA, August 9, 1993.

Copyright (c) 1993,2009 - Scott Johnston - May not be reproduced without permission.

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