LIMS and the Automation of the Water Lab

(Reproduced by permission from Laboratorium Magazine)

Europe’s most modern water lab is located in Leeuwarden, in the Netherlands. Vitens made a big splash when it brought this modern building, with its transparent design, into operation in January 2005. Many colleagues from Dutch and foreign labs are eager to visit this installation, where water control samples are routed automatically with the aid of sophisticated sample logistics and active bar coding. Each sample can be monitored and traced from the tapping point to organic, inorganic and microbiological analysis and removal.

The heart of the building is the circular sample intake hall, surrounded by offices. These glass walls provide an unobstructed view of this spotless room, which looks like it was completed only yesterday. From here, samples delivered in the evening are automatically assigned to the inorganic, organic or microbiology departments upon arrival. Crates are unpacked in an adjacent room, and bottles are placed on the conveyor belt, identified on the basis of their barcode and then sent to the buffer. The system then transports them to the correct lab. When the analysts arrive the following morning, the samples are ready and the robots have already done part of the sample pre-preparation. “Analysts can concentrate on their job. A great deal of logistics and routine work is done by robots, and we have proof of the accuracy of our work,” says Laboratory Project Manager Wouter van Delft.

Working Overnight

The facility in Leeuwarden was built when Vitens was formed, following the May 2002 merger of Nuon Water in Friesland, Waterleidingmaatschappij Overijssel (Overijssel Water Pipe Company) and Waterbedrijf Gelderland (Gelderland Water Company). At that time, the laboratory work was divided between Doetinchem, Zwolle and Leeuwarden. With Friesland as the designated place of business, the Friesland capital city, which already had a water lab, was the site best suited for the construction of a single central laboratory. The disadvantage was the peripheral location in the Vitens service area, which was too far for staff from Doetinchem and the Zwolle, and which meant  many extra kilometres for sample transportation. Vitens knew that this choice of location could prompt a number of obligatory redundancies, and that some of the work would have to be carried out at night. “Samples arrive here in the evening between seven thirty and nine thirty. Microbiological samples must be placed in the incubation stove within twelve or twenty four hours. This means that sample intake and registration must be computerized, as well as part of the sample pre-preparation, so that the work which has to be performed at night can be carried out with as few staff a possible.”


Immediately after the merger, van Delft and colleagues visited other labs to study other computerization options.  Vitens intended to use mechanization to exercise complete control over the sample routing. The basic requirements were complete tracking and traceability, with minimum manpower and maximum quality. The capacity had to be increased and provide space for 25% growth, to be partially achieved through subcontracting. Other requirements included cost reductions and enhanced flexibility of lab processes. This required a review of the logistics, the laboratory process and a new IT architecture design. The search for a paradigm lab was not fruitful, says van Delft, “We searched thoroughly, especially in the United Kingdom. Mostly, we found examples of what we did not want. Sample intake was a mess far too often, requiring a great deal of manual work and personal interpretation. Analysts were losing a lot of time looking for lost bottles and samples that were in the wrong refrigerators or just weren’t there at all.”

An Unaffordable Hobby

Eventually, after a Europe-wide request for tenders, Vitens decided to work with Kiestra in Drachten and the British Labman Ltd. “Kiestra has a great deal of expertise in microbiology. They have computerized preparatory work. Labman is strong in engineering and custom made robotics. The sample intake plus the conveyor belts and the computerization of the organic and inorganic lab is theirs. The two wanted to work together and had submitted a joint tender. We felt that this was important in creating a single unified solution.”

The Leeuwarden facility was built with an investment of € 12.5 million, about half of which went to setting up the lab.  A number of Vitens staff participated in the construction, enabling them to conduct ongoing service and maintenance. “We wanted to mechanise and computerise, but we didn’t want to be dependent on a single supplier who only arrives after 48 hours if something goes wrong. This would have turned into an expensive hobby. No system ever works one hundred percent – and this one is no exception.  You must be able to solve problems and make changes in-house, and we have three people dedicated to that. One focuses on software, one on electro-technical matters and one on lab processes. They were involved in the construction and helped with the software and hardware. We are now a year further ahead. It is up and running and we now know more about the system than Labman, for example. This approach represents the core of our success.”


The Vitens lab uses a LIMS produced by STARLIMS, which supports the high degree of automation required by Vitens. A flexible planning module is used by 35 samplers to process about 200,000 samples per year. The STARLIMS application is integrated with multiple other devices and systems, including:

  • Route planning software
  • Personal Digital Assistants (PDA), enabling uploading of routes and downloading and processing of field observations
  • Manufacturing Execution System (MES), for uploading of data for sample intake, and  downloading and processing of the analysis results of the chemistry robots and microbiology
  • Multiple laboratory devices
  • Accounting software

In addition, third-party software with its own sampling and reporting can be integrated with the STARLIMS application.

STARLIMS is the center of communications. Sample planning for projects is defined using the LIMS, and ad hoc samples can also be recorded. Data relating to the planned samples and the available samplers is sent to the commercial route planner. The route planner defines the optimal routes, which are forwarded by STARLIMS to the PDAs of the relevant staff members. Samplers in the field link the pre-labelled bottles to the samples and record field observations. This information is sent automatically from the PDAs to the STARLIMS software. In the laboratory, the bottles are made available to the MES, which retrieves the correct information from the STARLIMS application. The MES takes care of the bottle logistics in the laboratory on conveyor belts, conducts a number of on-line analyses. These and other analysis results are processed automatically using instrument links as much as possible.

Trip Planning

The sampling is conducted by Vitens' Planning and Sampling department. The samplers collect the pre-labelled sample bottles at the regional offices and then set off on their rounds. They are equipped with a PDA (personal digital assistant) which is controlled by the LIMS with an integrated route planning module (Ortec). Each sample bottle is scanned during sample intake, after which STARLIMS automatically accepts the data. The barcode on the bottles that controls a sample from sampling to destruction is crucial. Vitens outsources the labelling, sterilization, addition of a preservative and the transportation of the bottles to the regional offices to Identipak, where batch approval is carried out. This means that when a Larcom courier delivers crates and cooled bottles in the evening, Vitens knows exactly what to expect. Bottles that do not meet the set shelf-life conditions and delivery times are recognized and rejected by the system. Approved bottles move from the sample intake hall to the organic, inorganic or microbiology departments on one of the three conveyor belts. There are about 1,500 to 2,000 per day, with a maximum of 2,500. Faulty samples remain in the buffer room. “This costs a few tens at most. We mail or telephone about these the next day. However, we exceed our time limits when we do this, and make a note of it,” says van Delft.

Legionnaires Disease Profiling

The high degree of mechanization does not mean that analysts can operate on automatic pilot. “This is definitely not the case,” emphasises van Delft. “Analysts here do not drag crates around or stand filling plates for hours. Negative samples are removed automatically.”  This allows analysts in the microbiology lab to focus primarily on the real laboratory work that cannot be computerized, such as the aseptic conduction of membrane filtrations and the spreading of sample material on a specific nutrient for Legionnaires Disease profiling. However, the analysts only have to take the spreading plates required for this out of the cooler. The agars are applied by a robotic system produced by Kiestra that also automatically handles the preparation for the spore count.

Only two analysts are required to supervise this process at night. Bottles are sent automatically from the sample intake, the barcode is scanned, their tops are removed, the correct medium is injected into a petri dish, the barcode on the sample bottle is transferred to the spreading plate, the sample is distributed using a pipette and the dish ‘chooses’ the (correct) incubator. A PC and STARLIMS are used to ascertain the current status of the sample and to trace each step of the sampling back to the sampler. This prevents human error resulting from incorrect or omitted pipetting and incorrect incubation. The system enables Vitens to present proof that its work has been carried out in accordance with Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).

Analysis Machine

While the green-and-white Kiestra computerization solutions are dominant in the microbiology lab, it is the uncluttered robot cabinets with the blue Labman logo that are noticeable in the inorganic chemistry lab. The inorganic analyses were robotized in accordance with Vitens specifications, as was the fluid handling. All samples from the previous night are standing ready in a buffer in a cooled reception room on arrival. They are scanned, the tops removed and then the bottles are automatically taken past the various analysis robots where the necessary analyses or pre-processing steps are carried out. Each analysis machine can process approximately 200 samples. No human intervention is required for the determination of temperature, oxygen levels, pH, colour, clarity, hardness, conductivity and analyses of substances such as ammonia/phosphate, iron, chlorine, nitrate and sulphate. After validation, analysis results are recorded directly in the STARIMS application. Analysts supervise the process and focus on the specialist features. They can use a PC to monitor robots on-line and intervene where necessary. Time-consuming sample preparation is also a task for the robots (e.g. for the determination of ICP-MS, which analysts can conduct from the robot behind the equipment). As in microbiology, after evaluation the samples are automatically removed and taken to a waste container. Only the sample storage of organic chemistry is mechanized. This concerns a relatively small quantity of samples for the determination of  volatile organic compounds and pesticides, for which computerization does not offer added value.

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