October 19, 2018
Integrating laboratory instruments with a LIMS (laboratory information management system) such as STARLIMS is one of the best ways to improve data integrity and drive operational efficiency in the laboratory. Instrument integration helps to facilitate significantly increased sample throughput and a reduction of data transcription errors. Instrument integration also tends to increase scientist job satisfaction by reducing tedious tasks like writing down results and manual data entry. This allows scientists to spend more time doing the actual science that helps drive innovation for your organization.
Instrument integration with LIMS is one of the keys to transforming your laboratory operations, improving product quality, and turning your data into knowledge. Some of the most common instruments that are integrated with LIMS include GC, GCMS, HPLC, LCMS, ICP, Particle Counters, DNA Sequencers, Balances, AA Analyzers, Titrators.
STARLIMS provides a comprehensive LIMS solution that improves quality and safety throughout the entire product lifecycle. STARLIMS allows for multiple methods of interfacing directly with the lab instrumentation. In this blog, we’ll discuss two common approaches for integrating instruments with STARLIMS, along with their advantages and disadvantages.
General Instrument Integration Best Practices
It is important to follow a best practice methodology when integrating instruments with a LIMS. Instrument integration can be a complex and time-consuming process that can easily contribute to project time and cost overruns if careful planning and an effective process is not practiced.
One of the most important aspects of an effective integration methodology is determining which instruments provide enough of a return on investment (ROI) to make the instrument integration worth pursuing. Some of the questions that should be asked in this analysis include:
- How frequently is the instrument used and what is the quantity of the results it exports?
- How critical are the instrument’s results for laboratory processes?
- How much time and/or effort would integrating the instrument save for scientists?
- Would integrating the instrument contribute significantly towards data integrity in the lab?
- Can the instrument’s PC be easily connected to the network, so the instrument can be integrated with the LIMS?
STARLIMS Instrument Integration Methods
Once you have determined which instruments you want to integrate, STARLIMS has several methods to choose from to accomplish the integration.
Method 1: Scientific Data Management System (SDMS)
In addition to a LIMS, the STARLIMS solution contains an SDMS module that is an integration powerhouse. The SDMS comes with a utility called the ‘Grabber’ which watches a targeted networked folder for any new exported instrument files. The location of the exported instrument file need only be on a computer with network access. When a new file appears, the Grabber is triggered to upload the file to the SDMS repository. After doing some initial configuration in the SDMS and providing a “training document”, AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms take PDF reports exported from the instruments, parse and format the data, then import them to the LIMS database. Another feature included in SDMS is the ability to format the data using ActionScript. ActionScript allows for programmatic formatting, filtering, sorting, and much more.
- Full featured development environment
- Document versioning and retention capabilities
- Works on any networked computer
- Allows for parsing of PDF documents which is typically more problematic than other file types (xls, csv, txt, ect)
Method 2: Custom Integration Interface
A custom instrument integration interface is common for integrating simple instruments (pH meters, balances, etc.) due to the built-in development library. These instruments will send their output using the TCP/IP and/or COM protocols. The built-in development library contains functions that are capable of importing documents and parsing directly from a COM or TCP/IP stream.
The interface is relatively easy to create using the XFD and pre-defined functions (development library) and once in place can handle most instrument types. It’s worth noting that this approach cannot handle complex parsing of PDFs and maintaining instrument connection scripts can be tricky. It is also important to note that this approach is geared towards result entry and doesn’t often directly save data to the database.
While it is ideal to use TCP/IP for all networked instruments, not all lab instruments come with an ethernet port to facilitate that type of transfer. However, most instruments are equipped with a COM port. By using a protocol converter, it is possible to transform the COM data to TCP/IP data which is then sent to STARLIMS over the network.
- Works well with most instruments and export file types
- Can accept direct streaming data in real time
- Scripting can be very simple leading to a low learning curve once the interface is established
- Interface can be customized as much or as little as required by the business
- Using IP-addresses, it is easy to connect to and maintain instrument integration details
Effective instrument integration is an important factor in enhancing productivity, efficiency, data integrity and innovation in your laboratory environment. In this blog, we discussed two ways to integrate instruments with STARLIMS. Other possible methods include web services, system-to-system, and direct database transfers. It is important to evaluate each one of these methods in order to determine which one makes the most sense for your laboratory environment in a given situation.
Astrix Technology Group is a full-service global laboratory informatics consulting, regulatory advisory and professional staffing firm focused on serving the scientific community since 1995. As a premier STARLIMS consulting partner, Astrix specializes in a full range of services for STARLIMS consulting solutions. Our STARLIMS experts are proficient in all methods of integrating instruments with the STARLIMS system. If you would like to discuss your STARLIMS instrument integration plan, or if you need help in getting your plan justified and/or implemented, feel free to contact us for a free, no obligations consultation.