LIMS for the Bass Ackwards Lab…

I was talking to three friends last week about various issues concerning data management in the laboratory.  One friend is starting a brand new lab and currently has not purchased the analytical equipment.  Another friend runs an internal testing lab at a manufacturer and is going to spin that lab off as an independent testing lab and the third friend runs a family of commercial testing labs but is leaving them to pursue a completely different set of challenges that will exercise his many talents in a completely different field of work.

In our conversations, we discussed what exactly the purpose is of the analytical testing lab.  Note, the single thing in common about all of these individuals is that they all own or run analytical testing labs and they are directly responsible for serving their respective customers.  Their jobs do not consist of having to actually perform analytical tests since they have analysts that perform those tasks.  The fact about the roles these individuals play in their labs, has a lot to do with what the real purpose is of the analytical laboratory.

If you go to Pittcon, when you are on the exhibit hall floor, what is your general impression of the majority vendor types you see?  Speaking for myself, I see instrument vendors for the most part.  Everyone is selling analytical instrumentation.  There are LIMS vendors there but they are generally obfuscated by lab instrument vendors.  In fact, some of the largest instrument makers sell LIMS as a companion to their real core business of selling instrumentation.  The common thread between LIMS and Instrumentation is “Information”.  The instrument produces the physical data and the LIMS manages the data and produces meaningful reports.  These reports are the things the customer of the lab are truly interested in.

It is clear that if you have a lab that produces data, you need a system to manage and release that data in a format known as “Information”.  Customers of the lab do not need raw instrument data, they need quality assured information that consists of raw instrument data.  They need information that directly correlates to why they sent samples to the lab for testing in the first place.  The fact that an analytical instrument had to be used to produce the required data is of no concern to those lab customers.  They just want the information.  The test method could call for sacrificing chickens on a BBQ grill and running around it three times and if it gave you reliable answers, the only question from the customer would be…  how much are you charging and what is your turn-around time.  This is especially true in the environmental business.

So where am I going with all this?  Well, many folks think that the purpose of the lab is to perform testing.  This is not true.  Testing is simply a means to an end.  The purpose of analytical lab is to provide information to the customer.  Guess what?  You don’t need any instrumentation to do that.  This is where the bass ackwards lab comes in.  In starting a new lab, my friend has decided to purchase the LIMS first and then equip the lab with instruments and staff later.  He has negotiated good contracts with other labs that will run his samples.  He will receive samples, log them into the LIMS and run them down the street to a subcontract lab.  The logged in sample data will be transmitted automatically to the LIMS of the subcontractor and the subcontractor will transmit back the instrument data to the contract lab (my friend’s lab).  This is a case that is all too atypical.

Most labs feel that you need to start with instruments and staff and simply get by with MS-Office as the LIMS.  I think this is truly the bass ackwards lab.  Unfortunately, it is more often the case than not.  Information is what the lab customer wants.  Information is what a LIMS provides.  The instruments are simply tools to generate data and they are even less essential to the lab than the LIMS, by virtue of the fact that the instrument testing can be outsourced to labs that have under utilized resources.  This fact is affording my second friend, the opportunity to spin off his internal lab in order to take on samples from customers like my first friend.  As for my third friend…well, he has been there, done that and has done it so successfully that he can now pursue his new interests.

By the way, all three of my lab friends agree that the single most important system in their lab is the LIMS.  So…  Get a LIMS!

Leave a Reply