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Can a modern MES replace your LIMS?

December 10, 2013

Can a modern MES replace your LIMS?

LIMS or Laboratory Information Management Systems are IT applications traditionally used in all kinds of laboratories for the purpose of sample management, quality assurance, compliance, research and development. Today we will discuss whether or not modern MES applications can provide LIMS functionality in a manufacturing environment or is there a need to have a separate LIMS application along with the ERP and MES. But first, let’s understand what a LIMS application is and what makes it so important.

LIMS applications have earned a reputation for being highly customized, expensive and time taking endeavors, but have proved to be very crucial in effective lab management nonetheless. The reason why LIMS applications have been extremely customized is due to the nature of work performed in various labs. Unlike many manufacturing operations, labs have a myriad of process components, equipment, extensive human intervention and types of analysis/tests, which generate copious amounts of disparate data points.

To add to that, each lab has a unique modus-operandi. Even labs of the same organization may be performing completely different tasks, i.e. a lab in USA may be responsible for research, another lab in Germany for Quality Assurance (along with mass production) and a third in Spain for product development. Even when labs are supposed to handle similar processes, the way in which they function might still be completely different, with different compliance standards and reporting methodologies and hierarchies. Thus there is an evident need to preserve the process followed within a particular lab, and that is why most LIMS applications installed in past 20 years, still function as on-site Legacy systems. However, some vendors now offer more modular and web-based LIMS, but these applications are still evolving.

Initially, LIMS applications were developed to automate the process of sample management, streamline data collection and reporting. Ever since, LIMS applications have evolved from thick client applications to thin client. Some vendors are even offering LIMS in SaaS models, although these offer limited functionality and customization options. These applications are generally supposed to provide basic functionality of sample reception, storing sample-relevant customer/specs data, job assignment, job scheduling, sample tracking, quality control/reporting, sample analysis data storage, equipment data and data related to inspection, approval for reporting or further analysis.

Modern LIMS applications however may perform other functions like, audit management, sample/lot genealogy, chain of authority data, compliance reporting, CRM, document management, calibration/maintenance scheduling, inventory management, recipe management, personnel data, training, traceability and QC. Looking at the list of functions that modern LIMS applications can perform, it is easy to get carried away and believe that your plant actually needs a separate LIMS application. However, this might not actually be the case.

In most manufacturing operations, labs do exist to ensure quality/regulatory compliance, research and in-process quality management. Most organizations already have an ERP, SCM, CRM or MRP system in place. But these applications lie in the Enterprise process and logistics layer of the industrial IT hierarchy and would lack the capability to handle the high volume of transactional data in a typical manufacturing and lab environment.

Applications like the MES and LIMS exist in the manufacturing operations and automation/shop-floor process control layer, in the IT hierarchy. Thus companies have two choices: one is to employ a separate LIMS and MES application; or two to employ a more versatile MES application to manage all aspects of manufacturing operations including the lab/labs. Let’s consider the pros and cons of both choices and understand which suits organizations better in current business scenario.

The first choice would have made more sense 10 years ago, when MES applications had limited functionality and were yet to introduce proper SPC/QC modules, agile databases, inventory management, document management, training modules etc., and LIMS applications were considered the ideal choice for handling lab management. Employing two separate applications LIMS and MES for manufacturing creates major problems for IT departments as they need to interface both applications with each other and with the enterprise applications like the ERP or SCM. If these applications can’t be integrated, it basically defeats the purpose of having software applications to begin with. What is the use of a LIMS application which is unable to provide QC data to production and material quality data to the ERP? For most modern manufacturers a LIMS application alone is insufficient as it is incapable of handling other manufacturing functions. Choosing two applications means higher total cost of ownership and reduction of agility.

Can a new MES replace your LIMS?Now let’s consider if second choice, i.e. choosing an MES application to cover both manufacturing and lab management. Modern MES applications have now evolved enough to provide almost all LIMS functionality, right from sample tracking to personnel training & certification, from recording bulk transactional data to compliance/regulatory reporting. An MES application, especially a modular one, offers both standard and customized workflows to accommodate a Lab operation, which implies lesser up-front cost and user satisfaction resulting from required customization. Overall from an organization’s perspective, an MES is a more critical addition than a LIMS as it covers a more comprehensive chunk of the business process. A standalone LIMS may be suitable for a company which exists solely as an R&D facility, but it doesn’t make sense for a large manufacturing enterprise. Also modern MES applications have the ability to communicate directly with the lab equipment using protocol converts or xml based conversion or extraction templates, which provides automation and reduces manual data entry. So the logical question which arises is- why choose a LIMS at all? The answer to which is, don’t if you can find an MES to perform all or most of the functions discussed above.

A single MES application is a far better business choice, as it would have the capability of providing real-time actionable information, to and from the lab, in the requisite reporting format. Modern MES applications are web-based and highly agile, which allow them to incorporate different and complex lab workflows, with greater ease; they are also able to integrate labs and plants located separately. In addition, a single comprehensive MES solution will ensure better communication and tighter collaboration with other enterprise solutions like the ERP or MRP. Even if the MES isn’t able to provide 100% functionality of an equivalent LIMS application, it would still be a better choice considering other advantages to the organization.

That said, a good MES would and should be able to incorporate most LIMS functionality, without requiring extensive coding and adding too much. A single MES also means a lower total cost of ownership, lesser resistance from personnel, reduced overall cycle time and arguably higher ROI, than if two separate applications are employed in the manufacturing operations layer. So to sum-up, go for LIMS if you own and run a standalone R&D lab, but if your operation spans wider, with manufacturing at the epicenter, choose a modern modular MES application to cover functions of both your lab and the manufacturing operation.

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