System Helps Agency Manage Lab Information

The central laboratory of Philadelphia Suburban Water Company has been relying on a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) for two years. Although LIMS have been common in commercial laboratories for many years, these computer systems have somewhat different uses in a water utility laboratory.

The central laboratory of Philadelphia Suburban Water Company has been relying on a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) for two years. Although LIMS have been common in commercial laboratories for many years, these computer systems have somewhat different uses in a water utility laboratory.

Philadelphia Suburban Water Company (PSW) contemplated the purchase of a LIMS for more than 10 years. During the early-mid 1980s, such a system required a mainframe computer and cost several hundred thousand dollars. As personal computers and local area networks (LAN) became more common, and costs decreased, a typical LIMS came within the reach of more water utility laboratories.

A factor in the selection of a LIMS for Philadelphia Suburban Water was the operation platform. Several systems operating in an MS-DOS environment were considered and rejected. Since the early 1990s, PSW has had a PC-based LAN with a Microsoft Windows desktop.

The LIMS program selected was LabVantage™ for Windows. The vendor was Laboratory MicroSystems Inc. of Troy, NY. (The company was since acquired and now uses the name LabVantage Solutions™). LabVantage reports seen by most users are in Microsoft Access, however the underlying database is Oracle. The network is a PC-based LAN running Novell NetWare. The network contains a separate file server for the LIMS.

A key feature of the LIMS is its ability to serve as a repository of water quality information, allowing users to observe trends in data. Another feature important to PSW was the ability to handle hundreds of sample locations from more than 20 water systems.

Data is stored and retrieved in a way that allows lab staff to track the progress of a given batch of samples and data users to receive answers to water quality inquiries. Instrument drivers link some of the data acquisition software with the LIMS software so that manual data entry is minimized, where possible. During the design of the LIMS, there was no need for samples to be linked with invoices or purchase orders, since the laboratory does mostly in-house work. Although there is a mix of compliance and operational testing done in the lab, most of the samples are from PSW supplies.

LIMS Administrator

It was evident that a key person would be required to implement and administer the LIMS. Ideally, such a person would have a keen insight into laboratory operations by knowing exactly the types of things that are needed in a lab setting. Also, the ideal LIMS Administrator needed an intimate knowledge of computer networks, databases, and interfacing instruments to computers and to the LIMS. To the best of our knowledge such a person does not exist (or is a very rare individual).

LIMS Administrator

The desire to fund a new, full time position met with obstacles in the budgetary process. A chemist with an interest in the LIMS took on the added responsibility of helping develop the system. Eventually a position of Chemist/LIMS Administrator evolved. The chemist became heavily involved with the LIMS. The goal for the position was for the administrator to spend approximately half time working as a chemist and half as LIMS Administrator, but in reality nearly 95 percent of his time is spent working on LIMS.

LIMS Administrator

Activities of the LIMS Administrator include maintaining the system in optimal performance by running specific “utility” programs within LabVantage. Report writing has also been a major responsibility of the Administrator. Although PSW purchased several custom reports written specifically for its laboratory, many additional reports were written to satisfy the needs of the data users.

LIMS Administrator

One of the key functions of the LIMS Administrator is to serve as a liaison between the lab staff, LIMS vendor, and Information Services Department. Communication between all parties is crucial in solving problems as they arise.

Information Services

Early on it became clear that successful implementation of the project would require significant input from PSW’s Information Services (IS) Department. This department maintains the local and wide area networks and does a significant amount of computer and billing work for municipalities and other utilities. The IS Department also administers the company’s local and wide-area networks, the LIMS file server, and the database engine (Oracle). The IS Department is charged with maintaining most of the other mission critical computer programs for PSW, including the customer information system and financial information system. The IS staff does not typically get involved with SCADA or process control software used in the production and monitoring of water treatment facilities.

Information Services

The IS Department provided the expertise in computer networks and databases to support the LIMS. They were also very important during the purchase process (vendor demonstrations and site visits) and during the negotiation of various aspects of a software license agreement. On this last point, PSW’s Law and Administration Division was also heavily involved.

LIMS Reports

Some at PSW feared that the LIMS would be a “black hole” of information: lots of data in, no information out. It became clear that reports from the LIMS were a key for many data users. Several “custom” reports were written by the vendor at PSW’s request. These included the following:

LIMS Reports

1. Laboratory Monthly Report. This report calculates the number of samples and analyses for each analyte. Subtotals are calculated for three sections of the laboratory: microbiology, inorganic chemistry, and organic chemistry. Grand totals are also calculated for the report.

LIMS Reports

2. Trend Analysis. This report is comprised of two major sections: graphs of water quality data and laboratory quality control. In the first type of graph, a water parameter is plotted as a function of sample date. Up to five sample locations can be plotted on a single graph. These graphs can be helpful in interpreting trends in a given parameter over time or in assessing the effectiveness of treatment for a parameter at a given location. The other type of trend analysis report is for plotting quality control data. Any one type of QC parameter can be selected for plotting over any given period of time. Although trends in a given QC parameter can be easily seen, one of the weaknesses of the report is that no statistical analysis is included. For this reason, a third party software package (NWA Quality Analyst) was purchased to help automate the QC plots and associated statistics.

LIMS Reports

3. Barcode Download Report. This custom “report” is a program that allows a separate program (sample scheduling database) to be linked with the LIMS. The main purpose is to automate the login process by transferring field sampling data to the LIMS. This program is used daily but produces no hardcopy output.

LIMS Reports

4. Generic Search Report. This report allows the LIMS database to be searched for a variety of fields.

LIMS Reports

One of shortcomings of the LIMS as purchased was the availability of useful reports. Many in-house reports were written to supplement those originally purchased with the product.

LIMS Reports

The LIMS vendor provided a program that would allow the LIMS database to be searched in a generic manner. Because the searches were fairly general, they could take a long time to be useful in some cases. Also, the format of the written report was sparse in that it gave the information requested, but was not presentable in a form that could be sent outside the laboratory. For example, units of measure were not included on the report. Because this generic search program was a “custom” report provided by the LIMS vendor, our laboratory staff did not have the ability to change any aspect of the report.

LIMS Reports

Because only a certain amount of programming time was allotted as part of the purchase price, many reports had to be developed in-house by PSW’s Chemist/LIMS Administrator. Reports were written to cover everything from a “simple” listing of data for a given sample to monthly reports in which statistical calculations are performed on raw water bacteriological analyses.

Conclusions:

1. Select a robust LIMS vendor. This means a vendor that can survive (and thrive) in a constantly changing marketplace yet not alienate long-time customers. 2. Strong involvement of computer professionals from the IS Department is needed. 3. Good communications with laboratory staff, the LIMS vendor, and IS Department is also needed. 4. Obtain as much training as possible from the LIMS vendor and other sources. 5. A LIMS Administrator for daily activities and report writing is required. Once again, training is important. 6. Good reports from the LIMS are essential. Avoid the black hole concept with a lot of information going into the LIMS without easy ways for the average user to retrieve it.

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