A Potted History of Industrial Advances
The 1st industrial revolution used the power of steam and water to move away from hand production to machines in the 18th century. The 2nd industrial revolution drove mass production and the improved efficiency of the modern production line in the 19th century. The 3rd industrial revolution, also known as the digital revolution, occurred in the later 20th century, where computers and communication technology drove innovation and efficiency. The current, 4th industrial revolution, is being driven by digital transformation, the interconnectivity of everything, and the use of computing power to automate decision making.
What is Digital Transformation
Digital transformation uses digital technologies throughout an organisation to fundamentally improve or change how businesses operate and provide value to their customers. Digital transformation may encompass multiple systems and technologies including robotics, workflow automation, advanced data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and Cloud technologies. Bringing together disparate systems to seamlessly manage data is at the very heart of digital transformation. This requires unified multi-directional flows of data and information from every part of the business, creating an interconnected data ecosystem.
Nowhere are these ideas more applicable than in the laboratory environment. Laboratories provide a rich and varied source of data that is important to, and has value for, the wider enterprise. However, all too often this data exists as siloes of information that is difficult to link. Figure 1 provides a simplified view of the multi-layered informatics model that can exist within a manufacturing organisation with a QA/QC laboratory function.
Figure 1: A multi-layered informatics model of a typical manufacturing business
Using a LIMS to Connect Islands of Data
As the diagram shows, the laboratory does not work in isolation from the rest of the organisation or enterprise. It both produces data for the rest of the enterprise and consumes data from the wider business. However, this only works efficiently if significant issues around how the data is generated and stored, as well as questions around data compatibility and accessibility are addressed.
Placing a configurable Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) at the centre of your laboratory informatics strategy can make a significant contribution to the digital transformation of your organisation. The LIMS can record and manage data associated with a myriad of laboratory activities over and above those just associated with sample testing and make the data accessible within a standard database. In this way, the ability to easily search a single source of data allows better, more informed decisions surrounding all aspects of the laboratory to be made. It can also provide the all-important integration with wider business functions. Indeed, the ability to integrate with a variety of other systems has become a key selling point for the Matrix Gemini LIMS. Examples include:
- Integration with complex instrument data systems, such as Chromatography Data Systems, to automatically schedule sample runs and collect the generated results
- Initiating testing based on batch information passed from an Enterprise Resource Planning System (ERP) or Manufacturing Information System (MIS)
- Linking laboratory data to other business data to allow visualisation of corporate data using business intelligence tools
- Automated creation and delivery of invoices ensuring commercial customers are correctly charged and revenue is maximised
- Allowing external customers direct, but limited and controlled, access both to request work to be undertaken and to review data and information
- Remote access allowing, for example, tests to be approved even if managers are located off-site
These are just some examples of the capabilities of a LIMS to create, consume and distribute data and information of value. Furthermore, by providing access from a single integrated source to the type of operational and management data described above, the LIMS can be used to model the effect of potential business changes. For example, the impact of a new production line on the time to complete product testing and therefore product release, or the implication of winning a new contract on labour and equipment requirements in a commercial testing organisation. The LIMS becomes a business-critical system that enables informed decisions to be made regarding a multitude of laboratory processes.
Integrating LIMS with Enterprise Systems – The Key to Digital Transformation
All organisations are unique, and the aims and benefits that can be achieved through digital transformation will also be unique. To maximise the benefits of digital transformation the systems deployed must support this uniqueness but also be able to adapt to change. The key to this is the ability to configure the system to meet the needs without compromising its supportability. The configuration tools available in a fully configurable LIMS such as Matrix Gemini allow solutions to be built without compromising the underlying code. At least one organisation has used the product to create a complete business management tool linking the commercial and scientific aspects of the business in a single system. More commonly organisations integrate LIMS into their IT ecosystem, linking business critical systems to streamline operations. For example, the integration of a veterinary pathology laboratory to veterinary hospital management system to manage the care of valuable equine patients. Revenue can be maximised in a commercial testing laboratory by providing full details of all analytical procedures carried out as part of an agreed contract to the relevant finance systems.
A LIMS provides a powerful component to drive the digital transformation process in a business. While the 4th Industrial revolution is still in its infancy, within laboratories instruments sensors, robotic systems and other equipment is are slowly becoming more connected, allowing data to move between them and the LIMS. Higher level (ERP/MIS) systems are being used to pass information and plan testing. Embracing and using digital transformation yields significant financial benefits to a business. Many of these benefits have been highlighted by current Covid-19 working restrictions and pressures on the economy. Like the previous industrial revolutions, the trend towards automation and data exchange in the 4th industrial revolution is unstoppable.
By Tim Daniels, Marketing Manager at Autoscribe Informatics