The Paperless Lab in Action
Oct 30 2012
Author: Trish Meek on behalf of Thermo Fisher Scientific Informatics
Many organisations are striving to create a paperless laboratory environment by integrating lab instruments and software solutions with the
enterprise. A paperless laboratory can be integrated easily into the overall business process, improving productivity, enabling better management of
data and optimising the investment in the lab. How does a paperless lab work? What are its pros and cons? How are life sciences organisations
achieving this goal?
For starters, what are the benefits of using paper? They’re not hard to establish. Paper is
generally easy to use, it’s often convenient, frequently portable and much of the time legally
defensible, and paper requires no ‘user training.’ For the most part, new users can be trained on
a process and quickly accomplish the task. Those are the positive aspects of paper, but, as you’d
expect, the downside to paper is greater than the upside. Using paper-based methods for
sensitive and complicated laboratory workflows creates a number of security, expense and
productivity challenges. First of all, paper reports or workflow documents introduce significant
security risks into what should be a completely secure process.
Paper processes also always introduce a human factor, and any human activity is inherently
prone to errors to some degree. At the very best, for every 1,000 results transcribed from an
instrument, a human being will make, on average, 3-6 mistakes. Typical error rates increase to 3
per 100 transcribed results (or 30 errors for every 1,000 results) if any math or stress is involved.
Organisations have to keep strict controls around their paper processes because they must
control document access, version control and information cataloguing to ensure that it can be
located when required. Paper-based processes are costly, both in terms of the physical purchase
of paper and in terms of the human capital that is expended to manually handle the process –
human capital that is probably highly skilled and trained for scientific research and laboratory
processes, not managing paper reporting.
Finally, in the current economic climate where every minute of research and scientific progress
must be measured by a success factor, paper processes represent the antithesis of collaborative
efforts. Today’s pharmaceutical company works in collaboration with academia, Contract
Research Organisations (CROs), and partner biotechnology companies. Their data is spread
across these organisations. Paper isn’t ‘searchable’ and in this era of distributed research and
development and outsourced testing, paper-based processes represent barriers to collaboration
and a time drain on sharing valuable scientific information.
How LIMS Factors In
More and more laboratories are realising that all the investment they’ve made in setting up a
state-of-the-art laboratory is not being fully optimised. The typical lab has expensive
instrumentation and other laboratory equipment, all of which are generating data of some kind.
Each of these instruments, if siloed, requires that a human has some interaction with that data
to collate it with data from other instruments and compile reports. A paperless laboratory helps
to optimise that investment and the management of the information the lab creates.
While many technologies come together in a successful paperless lab, the critical component is a
Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS). LIMS solutions are now able to fully integrate
even the most heterogeneous labs. With today’s LIMS solutions, the cost to integrate different
software systems and equipment from independent instrument vendors is no longer prohibitively high.
In fact, some LIMS solutions go beyond basic instrument integration and data storage, utilising
sophisticated vendor neutral data transformation tools to enable scientists to see raw data in its
original form regardless of supplier. This type of automated data acquisition and point-to-point
data distribution across the enterprise is the true key to enabling today’s paperless lab.
How Does it Work?
Efficiencies in the lab come from streamlining workflow and automating processes. When the
lab is fully integrated, meaning the instruments and other information systems are integrated
with the LIMS, then all data collection and analysis is automated, freeing up the lab’s scientists
to focus on science and more value added revenue-generating activities. The reduction in time
spent performing manual paper-driven tasks can produce an enormous improvement in
productivity and also cost savings. For example, a modest reduction of 20% in man-hours spent
on paper-based efforts can produce hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual savings. It’s
worth thinking about how much more revenue could be generated by those man-hours if they
were spent on novel research instead of paper-based data collation and reporting processes or if
a problem with production was discovered and the organisation was able to react even one
hour earlier in the process. This is the value many companies are seeing when they fully
integrate their labs and connect them with the rest of the organisation.
The first thing an organisation needs to look at when considering a paperless solution is the
landscape of the lab. How is the lab set up? What instruments are in place or are planned for
the future? What is the workflow required? It’s important to ask these seemingly basic questions
because often the existing workflow isn’t the one that the lab actually wants – but it’s the one
that’s in place. So part of implementing a paperless lab is to find a consulting ally that can
honestly assess the situation in the lab and lay out a plan that will be flexible enough to grow
with the lab and the business in the near future. Once this assessment is complete and an
optimum workflow has been identified, the work can begin to make recommendations for
integrating all those disparate instruments and connecting the lab’s output with key business
metrics for management to use.
Finding the right LIMS is also a critical ingredient to successful integration. The offering you
select should leverage your organisation’s existing investments, even if they’ve been purchased
from a variety of commercial vendors. The ideal solution fully integrates instruments and
equipment, connecting data sources with data destinations via a single interface. State of the
art integration middleware can translate disparate instrument languages and convert raw data
to a vendor-neutral storage format for data archiving. Finally, in keeping pace with technology
advancements in and out of the laboratory environment, your investment in a paperless lab
solution should be able to offer access to raw data and instruments from any web browser or
The response to paperless lab offerings among pharmaceutical companies has been
overwhelmingly positive. More and more, life sciences industries want to get to a paperless lab.
Pharmaceutical companies understand the value proposition inherent in measuring the success
of every minute of research and scientific progress. Production efficiencies and enhanced
regulatory confidence offer a competitive advantage to those companies willing to go paperless
– and it is not hard to foresee the day when the same is true in life sciences. The paperless lab is
the lab of the future, and LIMS is the technology that will make that future possible.
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