Over the last 10 years, laboratory information management systems (LIMS) have changed beyond recognition. Increased regulatory requirements have meant that much more data is now being recorded; data that must be turned into useful information that is immediately available across the enterprise. This leverages operational excellence by allowing rapid business decisions based on better information, driving up efficiency whilst reducing costs. New technologies have facilitated the extension of the LIMS outside the traditional confines of the laboratory, providing deployment options that allow remote access from satellite laboratories, field workers, customers and so on. This has meant that the LIMS can truly be considered an enterprise level business system, with the capability to be deployed globally, irrespective of different time zones or local languages.
All this has meant that the modern LIMS is designed to be much more flexible than its predecessors were. This flexibility can take several forms. A modern LIMS makes extensive use of workflows that can be easily configured to match existing business processes, meaning that a LIMS implementation no longer requires that these processes must be re-engineered. Workflows determine the steps that define the sample life cycle, including batch release. They also cover supporting processes such as specification review and release. Workflows also define the testing procedures, which may consist of multiple, non-linear steps. Each step may involve the recording of data, and the result for a given step may determine which of several possible next steps should be performed. In earlier systems, typically only the final outcome of the test was recorded in the LIMS; in modern systems, the LIMS leads the operator through the defined steps making appropriate recommendations based on the entered results, the raw data or a resource reference.
This leads us to another development in LIMS: the increased capability of recording business logic within the system, where it can be automated, rather than within procedures that must be manually implemented. For example, the steps involved in a failure investigation are traditionally maintained as a procedure that the analyst follows, possibly using the LIMS to record the various findings. In the modern LIMS, the steps to be performed are defined in a workflow, with the possibility of different workflows for different types of sample. The workflow can be configured using graphical tools, with decision points and storage of required information at each step, as shown in Figure 1. For example, a checklist of questions accompanies the Assign Cause step to facilitate the recording of information.