Shopping for a LIMS

Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) have virtually taken over the day-to-day sampling and login procedures in almost every medical and industrial laboratory in the United States, coordinating and streamlining lab operations. In those laboratories that have not upgraded their old pencil and paper routine, purchasing a LIMS is quite possibly the most crucial decision the laboratory manager will ever make.

Evaluating and selecting a LIMS is not an easy task because of the diversity of the many LIMS available. No two systems are alike, and each LIMS manages tasks differently, depending on the type of lab they are designed for. To complicate matters, there are a number of different database choices. Unfortunately, in many cases, LIMS representatives do not educate potential buyers about the basic strengths and weaknesses inherent in every LIMS. As a result, many laboratory managers end up purchasing an unsuitable LIMS, then end up spending obscene amounts of time and money trying to modify the system for their lab. The problem is so pervasive that LIMS representatives have lost credibility with their consumers.

LIMS categories

Additionally, statistics show that 60 percent of all LIMS purchased are never fully implemented, mainly due to buyers underestimating the complexity of the implementation process. In these cases, laboratory management did not dedicate enough time or labor to accomplish the task properly. However, any lab considering purchasing a LIMS can minimize its risk by spending time learning about the features and benefits each LIMS offers.

LIMS fit into two categories. The first is the "turnkey" system, in which all functions are predefined by the LIMS program and the system is ready to use at installation. Its functions cannot be modified to suit the ever-changing and unique needs of the modern laboratory. The second is the "programmable" system, in which most, if not all features are custom-tailored to the individual laboratory. The system can be altered to meet individual requirements. However, It is not usable until the customization process has been completed, an expensive and time-consuming task. Additional configurations to the system can be made at a later time, at an additional cost.

When purchasing a LIMS, the first step is to consider the lab's requirements and expectations. A complete understanding of the laboratory's data and information flow is essential. For example, labs providing support to a manufacturing process usually have a very different data flow than a municipal lab performing wastewater analysis.

Package evaluations

When evaluating LIMS packages, look for a system that closely follows the lab's data flow. If one system appears ready-made to address a high percentage of a lab's data handling requirements, and is logically organized into samples and tests, then it is potentially a good fit. It will save a lab time, money and heartache if the LIMS software can interface with the existing laboratory equipment. If not, labs should factor items such as new hardware, networking, cabling and possible computer upgrades into their LIMS purchasing budgets.

It is important to remember that data flow includes login options, status tracking, data entry, audit trails and other features vital to a lab's operation. The software cost is only a fraction of the cost to installing a LIMS, and final selection should not be made solely on the software cost.

Installation and support

To estimate the amount of work involved implementing a LIMS, the lab manager must:

  • Make a list of what needs to be present in the LIMS for initial implementation;
  • Compare this list to each LIMS as it comes "out of the box" and
  • Determine if the LIMS administrator can make changes to the program if necessary. If so, estimate the level of expertise required to make the changes. If the changes require direct vendor interaction, the lab will need an accurate estimate of these costs.

In LIMS where the front-end application is open to extensive user modification, configurations may also include modification of existing forms (screens), creation of user-defined forms and custom data entry forms.

Obviously, the lab will have a greater need for technical support during the first year due to the number and level of questions that routinely arise during initial LIMS implementation and fine-tuning. Some labs, however, may require the vendor to install the program source codes (application set commands that dictate operations to the hardware), as "customizations" to the system to make it laboratory specific, making the system's cost never-ending.

The lab must also determine whether its LIMS administrator can perform the software installation. If the vendor must install the software, obtain written price quotes up front. On-site installation cost will likely be based on the number of workstations using the LIMS, as well as the network topology.

LIMS vendors offer a wide variety of support options via the Internet, phone, fax and remote modem. These costs should be spelled out in a service contract. Labs need to understand the type and level of vendor support available, and determine the cost of programming versus routine questions. Some vendors require that the facility maintain a current software update contract to obtain technical support; others try to bundle updates and support in the same contract. Be sure to understand both the short- and long-term costs and exact obligations associated with any contract. Software updates should enhance the LIMS. If the enhancement is not valuable to a particular laboratory, it shouldn't be required to purchase one in order to keep its LIMS up to date.

Finally, make no assumptions. The most common complaint from labs looking to replace existing LIMS is the assumption that all options discussed and demonstrated by the LIMS representative were included in the purchase price. Make sure all desired option appear in the system specifications section of the price quote. Labs also need to ask detailed questions about the LIMS providers' bug fix policy before making the plunge.

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This article appeared in the March 2000 issue of Environmental Protection magazine, Vol. 11, No. 3, p. 88.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

As Manager for SmartProcess Optimization Software Projects for Westinghouse Process Control, Inc., Jeffrey Grott, MBA, oversees the group tasked with developing and implementing advanced process control software for the power utility market.

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