There is an IT revolution that has been incubating in labs for the past 10 years. It started with the development of Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) to collect and store sample data and results. Most of the major test laboratories now use LIMS but today they are also looking to communicate the test results and sample data to their customers via the web.
Food manufacturers, raw material suppliers and retailers on the receiving end of this web-based revolution are starting to realise the wide benefits and implications that this has for all departments -- not just the QA lab.
The move to web-based data transfer is something many of the major food testing labs, such as International Laboratory Services (ILS) and Direct Laboratories, are looking at. Reading Scientific Services (RSSL) is already piloting such a scheme with some customers.
RSSL's LIMS, for example, can handle over 1,000 samples a week. Such sample testing is key to ensuring raw materials and final products are safe to eat and free from potentially harmful microbes and contaminants. It is also necessary to determine shelf-life and stability, for providing nutritional profiling and label information and backing up on pack claims. All manufacturers now undertake such routine testing, either in-house or outsourced, as the nuts and bolts of due diligence.
In the laboratory, LIMS and instrument automation have reduced the time taken to do such tests. They can be carried out in large batches rather than individually, saving time, money and labour. But it is in the way the results are handled that the real change is taking place.
In the past samples have been tested and the certificates of analysis sent out to manufacturers by post. Today the faster pace of new product development (NPD) has created a need for faster results reporting.
For Derbyshire-based ILS this means e-mailing the information in text and other file formats to clients three or four times a day. Direct Laboratories says it has a sample tracking service that allows customers to track the status of samples and display all the results from individual tests.
RSSL, meanwhile, sends certificates of analysis in portable document format (PDF) via e-mail to those who want it. Results can also be sent in spreadsheet format to be downloaded by companies the same day -- provided they have the right software.
Software for such operations is a sore point for many companies, especially those that have been thwarted by software upgrades which prevent their many different systems from talking to each other. Inability to read PDFs for example is frequently the result of software incompatibility.
RSSL decided that because of recent developments in web-based technology, particularly Microsoft's plans to build a new platform and applications that will enable future programs to run via the web (see panel on p52), the time was right to investigate linking its LIMS to the web.
Doing so enables its clients to access results and track samples remotely via the web without the need for expensive software. "With the .net solution all you need is access to the web -- you don't need a high level of IT and all the upgrades are managed at the lab service provider's end not the customer's," says Sean Meenan, the LIMS administrator and IT development manager at RSSL .
Linking LIMS to the web means that RSSL's customers can now book samples on to the system before despatch. For RSSL, this means fewer transcription errors on arrival.
LIMS sends updates to the website every 15 minutes, so samples can be tracked by both the lab technicians and those clients registered with RSSL as they pass through the testing facilities. In fact, as you walk into the RSSL building you are greeted by a screen showing how many samples are expected and how many have arrived.
The whole system, which has been six months in development, is currently being beta-tested with various food clients, including Waitrose.
As a retailer trading on high quality food, Waitrose carries out a massive and continuing product testing programme, which is the responsibility of analytical test manager Steve Spice. When he joined Waitrose Spice was introduced to the company's paper-based data management system, which he soon found to be both cumbersome and not at all transparent. Filing paper certificates took up a lot of man-hours. Retrieving data from the files at a later date could take days and the company soon started to run out of shelf space.
Spice says that while PDFs made things happen faster, they merely cluttered his hard drive instead of his filing cabinet. With these problems in mind, he could see immediate benefits from a web-based system. "It is not just a certificate collection depot -- it's about using data. Now we can bring this data to life and we can start to use it," he says.
Meenan agrees: "LIMS, which started out as simply a lab system, is now a major communication tool. It is no longer just about ticking due diligence boxes, we can use it to search, integrate and question data or look over trends," he explains. The test data produced can be looked at in a multitude of chart or trending formats. "It's about gaining ownership of your results, yet the data is held remotely at RSSL," he says.
A further advantage for Spice is that all data no longer has to be channelled through him. It can be accessed by multiple users, from various departments, provided they are registered with RSSL.
RSSL's move to the web is a timely one, as customers are getting more demanding about what they want from a lab service provider. Meenan comments: "Labs used to just need to be good at the science -- now it is the presentation and managing of results that is important."
For those sceptics that have heard IT experts enthuse about compatible technology and paper-less office systems in the past, Meenan has some words of reassurance: "To use these systems you don't need cutting edge technology," he says. "The Microsofts of the internet world are realising that it is important to have a standard way of working -- .net for example uses commercially available building blocks and it is not the technology but the people who are going to use it that are most important."
However, it is crucial for the lab service providers to get their technology right. "Good development partners and good security are essential," says Meenan.
The latter is one of the biggest concerns for companies looking at the web-based service. "Security shouldn't be a bolt on, it should be there from the beginning," he says. RSSL uses the same security provider as used by the major banks.
So why does the future for such systems look so bright?
According to Spice, there is more scope for time and cost savings. For example, a large part of his day-to-day work involves generating testing schedules. These schedules dictate what tests need to be done on which products, and when. They also need to marry with the needs of NPD and production departments in order to meet launch dates and retailer deadlines. Much the same procedure would be carried out by food manufacturers.
Spice sees a future opportunity in linking electronically-generated product specifications with LIMS so that LIMS generate the test schedules. He also speculates it may in future also be possible to feed in nutritional profile data and label information into the product specs as the testing proceeds. This could help speed up the whole NPD process.
"We will still need people to review it and check it is working properly," he admits.
From a food producer's point of view it has similar potential. Spice says in the future when Waitrose runs tests on products supplied by a particular producer, that company could potentially also be allowed remote access to the data. Thus the system could increase communication and information sharing up and down the supply chain.
Spice also sees it as an opportunity to improve contaminant benchmarking. "Currently, in cases such as acrylamide, where there are no current legislative guidelines, a lot of benchmarking goes on against published data or data generated by the authorities. It would be nice to have access through the system to enforcement data from the Food Standards Agency to compare levels so that we can measure ourselves against what the government is finding," he says.
What has surprised RSSL is the way that web-based LIMS technology has moved out of the lab and pervaded the whole company. For example, it generates the invoices used in the company's accounting; it helps the account managers manage clients' accounts by showing who's spending what and where; it provides RSSL with information on its productivity and turnaround, helping the company identify bottlenecks in sampling procedures.
"In its simplest form LIMS is a set of menus with a database. But we need to stop thinking of it as a lab software, it is much more," says Meenan.
So whereas LIMS started out by connecting instruments in the lab, now it has linked up to the web it is helping to connect the whole supply chain in a way that could speed products to market. FM
- RSSL 0118 986 8541
- ILS 01332 793000
- Direct Laboratories 01902 743222