Digital Transformation in an Accredited Lab

Clear and traceable identification of samples, reagents and equipment is essential in the day-to-day running of a laboratory. Electronic inventory and labeling systems ensure that lab personnel can keep track of their experiments and analyses.

This text was first published in the print an online edition of LABORPRAXIS September 2023 and translated to English; original article (LABORPRAXIS German), link for PDF download (German)

AUTHORS:

Max Jochums, Dr. Jochen Türk & Dr. Thorsten Teutenberg; Institut für Umwelt & Energie, Technik & Analytik e. V. (IUTA)

There is no denying that laboratories are becoming increasingly digital. However, most are still not completely paperless. A practical example from North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) in Germany shows how digital transformation can be successful: As part of the digitization strategy of the Futurelab.NRW project of the Institute for Environment & Energy, Technology & Analytics (IUTA), a labeling and inventory system was introduced that meets both the high quality management requirements of an accredited testing laboratory and the traceability of research results.

Furthermore, this system had to have open interfaces to the new software environment developed within the framework of Futurelab.NRW. In addition to label properties such as shape, temperature, UV and solvent resistance, additional “smart” features such as consumption tracking, chemical location or scanning with mobile devices are becoming increasingly important. Integration into an existing laboratory environment and seamless communication with existing databases is essential. One such “smart” solution is FLUICS CONNECT”.

The Starting Point

Previously, IUTA worked with a purely paper-based laboratory and QM system. One of the “symptoms” of paper-based documentation (see Figure 2) was that calibration certificates, equipment manuals, and material safety data sheets, for example, were not stored in a central location. Some documents were filed in paper folders, while files such as Excel spreadsheets were stored electronically on a central server. Although storage locations and paths were documented, searching for documents and files was time consuming, both in daily operations and during audits.

Manual recording of sample information for paper-based documentation. Photo: IUTA

This situation can be illustrated with a concrete example: During an audit, for example, an auditor reviews the process used to create a standard solution. The auditor requests access to all documentation to verify how and by whom the standard solution was prepared. This includes certificates and MSDSs for the chemicals used to make the standard solution. Next, the auditor wants to know which pipettes have been used and when they are next due for testing. Which pipette was used for a particular step is documented by hand on the corresponding QM form. However, the test and maintenance intervals for each pipette have to be read manually and compared with the device list maintained in Excel. Finally, it must be clearly and traceably documented from which QC standards, calibration standards, or intermediate dilutions were made. Although the employees are familiar with the folder structure, this is always a very time-consuming process. With a decentralized filing system, safety data sheets or certificates were sometimes filed in the wrong place.

What was needed was a central database that could be easily and intuitively used and managed by all employees. In particular, the ability to link entries and attach files directly to an entry is a top priority. The database should also be able to track the location of chemicals, for example.

Every Beginning is Hard…

With the introduction of FLUICS CONNECT, chemicals and samples can now be created directly in the software. Templates previously created in FLUICS are used. These include various information such as storage location. Safety data sheets and certificates are uploaded directly to the entry. After creating and printing a label, the container is photographed and the photo is linked to this record (see Figure 3). This makes it easier to locate chemicals and samples. Other benefits include centralized document storage and digital linking of pure substances, calibration solutions, QC samples, samples and equipment.

Screenshot of a FLUICS record that includes a photo of the labeled container. Photo: IUTA

Fluics is primarily used on mobile devices. While this has many advantages, such as the ability to retrieve all the information in the lab with a single scan, the way it works is of course completely different from desktop-based software. Initially, there were practical hurdles due to the slightly different handling of iOS and Android applications. For example, accessing photos taken with the mobile device and attaching them to a record required a one-time camera access permission on Android devices. In iOS, however, this permission was “hidden” in the system settings and had to be enabled manually on each device. To avoid such complications, it is advisable to roll out the system with as uniform a set of devices as possible.

Because the implementation was not supposed to affect daily operations, the process took a longer time. After a voluntary implementation phase, during which work was neither fully paper-based nor fully digital, there was a mandatory usage period of three months. During this time, additional work was created by the new handling of the system and the parallel double documentation. For example, all chemicals were digitally recorded and pure substances were already digitally linked to standard solutions, but paper-based documentation was still maintained. Printed accompanying forms were gradually replaced by Fluics labels with QR codes.

During the transition period, there was no direct time savings. However, the fact that staff only had to record the chemicals and solutions they were currently using meant that the laboratory did not have to be shut down for several days to carry out a complex one-off operation. At the end of the implementation phase, it was also possible to decide whether previously unrecorded chemicals could be disposed of. The stock of chemicals was significantly reduced, so less storage capacity is needed.

… But the Effort is Rewarded!

After the implementation phase, all chemical information was stored in a database that can be accessed through both the mobile application and a browser. The quick availability of information, especially certificates, has already resulted in significant time savings and a very positive impression regarding the organization of laboratory processes during external audits. All database entries can be accessed via a web interface (RESTful API), allowing easy integration with existing systems and further laboratory automation.

Container that has been labeled with a cryo-resistant FLUICS label. Photo: IUTA

In our case, for example, we integrated with a Laboratory Execution System (LES) and an electronic lab journal from Labforward. Through the LES (Laboperator), a digital “workflow” for the preparation of standard solutions was created and a purely paper-based SOP was digitally mapped. The Lab Execution System already has sensors and devices built in so that important metadata can be captured digitally during the process. The instrument and chemical information is easily imported from Fluics into the LES. After the substance is weighed and dissolved, a corresponding Fluics record is created and linked to the record of the substance and device used.

In addition, every single QC sample is recorded in Fluics, so that, for example, the dilution of a calibration solution can be linked to information about the pure substance and the pipette used. A digital workflow allows all steps of the process to be digitally tracked and seamlessly documented.

Conclusion

The introduction of Fluics can be considered a complete success. However, especially during the introduction phase, it is important to work together with employees to overcome any hurdles. Although the introduction initially required more time, a system as flexible as Fluics makes it possible to automate a large number of tasks and thus relieve the burden of documentation, which will become increasingly important in the future.

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