07/01/2022 | Lab Innovation
Many lab managers face this problem: Highly trained professionals spend most of their time manually preparing and executing experiments, filling out paper-based notebooks or moving digital data with a USB dongle from a lab device to LIMS. There is no trace of a digital, networked and automated laboratory. The laboratory domain is lacking a vendor-independent and open communication standard which complied with the various requirements of device vendors, lab operators and system integrators. Looking beyond the edge reveals a standard that is successful for more than 20 years in another domain.
Let’s paint a picture: A middleware is used by lab technicians to plan their experiments in the lab. The software can retrieve existing work orders from the LIMS, organises experiments into process steps, provides relevant settings to laboratory devices and triggers the execution of programs. After successful execution, outcome data is provided by the devices via the middleware to relevant collaborators. These process and analyse data, sign off on results and forward them to the LIMS. Regulatory requirements are considered by the software as well as the electronic documentation within the lab notebook. In parallel AI is working in the background with device, process, utilisation and environment data registering relevant deviations to aid the lab operator by identifying potential device failures, notifying about non-compliant environmental conditions or recommending on improved device utilisation. Sounds too good to be true?
The current laboratory domain is actually far from this ideal picture, although the digital networked laboratory is advertised on many occasions. A study conducted by McKinsey in 2019 showed that digitalisation can enable labs to cut 580 per cent of the costs and up to 70 per cent in turn-around time. Next to a relevant reduction in documentation and auditing effort through automated collection of results additional aspects are relevant: Reduction of human error and variance when executing laboratory protocols dies not increase quality but enables better planning of personnel, procedures and material consumption.
In contact to this the infrastructure found in today’s laboratories which is characterised by high heterogeneity and a lack of communication standards. Generic software solutions on the upper IT level (ERP, LIMS, MES) barely offerways to connect devices or software efficiently it at all. Full-scale intercommunication is only deployed for specific isolated solutions so requires customisation at software level. The outcome is rigid structures that don’t support a flexible change of the software and device landscape which means extra implementation. This is due to the predominantly applied proprietary vendor specific, communication interfaced which avoid efficient interoperability of systems form different vendors. A lack of general digitisation of many existing devices also prevents value-adding integration.
This is also true for highly automated independent operating device systems which are generating digital data without offering any communication interface.
Corporations in the area of discrete production faced a similar challenge 25 years ago when market leaders in the automation industry founded the OPC Foundation. Since 2008 it has been the governing body of the open and vendor-independent communication standard OPC UA which became the predominant industry standard. It enables “OPC UA Companion Specifications”, special information models tailored for market sectors or machine types. So the Companion Specification for robotics (OPC UA Robotics) defines standardised information model that can represent robot-related data unified and vendor independent. The value is fundamental: Users can create a “vertical” link for a robot as a plug’n’play with home PCs.
For the laboratory domain we are still lacking such a worldwide standard. There are the likes of “JCAMP”, “AnIML”, Allotrope of “SiLA”; interfaces are created very specific, in parts not certified or without modern security features. Moreover, they tend to focus to a greater extent on the pure data exchange than on the control of laboratory devices themselves. As a result of this, their area of application is limited.
About 30 companies within the German industry association for the laboratory analytical devices “Spectaris e.V.” embarked on a way standing to reason. Their common goal is the development of a communication standard: “Laboratory and Analytical Device Standard” (LADS). The standard is based on OPC UA providing lots of advantages needed for the application in the laboratory:
On this basis a companion specification is being created catering to specific laboratory needs. The LADS information model applies an agnostic approach to cover the broad horizontal spectrum of the lab device domain, ensuring acceptance as a general standard. Device-specific properties may be offered on top within this model. By the end of 2022 reference implementations should be available. Manufacturers and develops may apply these to test and certify their products. This guarantees components fulfil P’n’P interoperability. A consistent, vendor, device and system independent intercommunication is within reach.
infoteam Software AG
60486 Frankfurt am Main
Tel.: +49 69 7564-100