This sixth in a blog series on robustness and its role in enhancing lab optimization processes focuses on data management. The series takes a critical look at the term “robustness” and describes how it relates to a portfolio of analytical instruments (hardware and software) in quantifiable terms and benefits. The working definition for robustness (described in Part 1 of the series) includes three aspects: measurement, instrument, and process. The following describes an example of measurement robustness and process that centers on the benefits of an integrated laboratory information management system in an oil and gas production facility. With an enterprise-level integrated informatics solution in place, today’s oil and gas facilities can connect multiple-data producing operations centers for a seamless flow of data. This will allow lab operators and other management across the organization to access real-time data, and enable further efficiencies in the labs and across product lines. The efficiencies, time saved and improved decision making enabled by a robust enterprise-level informatics solution can ultimately contribute to improved margins and faster time to market.
Even as energy prices fall globally, for labs serving the oil and gas industry, the show must go on. In fact, this is an ideal time to look inward for gaps across the enterprise that could derail exploration, production and distribution, especially as activity ramps up in the future, which, despite how it looks now, is inevitable.
In a laboratory especially, productivity gaps have a way of hiding in plain sight as small, everyday problems. All data, from well content to volume, emissions and equipment status to environmental monitoring must be collected, stored, analyzed, and even the smallest error has far-reaching implications. Failure to process a single sample according to standard operating procedures (SOPs) could lead to stranded investment, delay in shipping or compliance penalty, none of which is trivial.
A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is more than a tool to manage samples: it is a tool to ensure regulatory compliance; a key contributor to improving quality, and the reliability of results; a critical investment for improving lab workflow, as well as data management of environmental monitoring throughout operations. The LIMS then is an essential tool to help the lab strengthen the business they serve and act as a true productivity partner. Here are some of the common, yet often unacknowledged, lab processes that can become bottlenecks and contribute to loss of productivity.
Poor Inventory Management
Expediting shipments of out-of-stock consumables to a lab — perhaps overpaying as a result — is a symptom of laboratory mismanagement. Since most energy industry labs run the same test over and over and with a certain cadence, inventory should be fairly predictable. The inability to anticipate future need is clearly an efficiency problem that stems from lack of visibility.
Better budgeting and tracking is an obvious remedy for inventory mismanagement. A laboratory information management system (LIMS) such as SampleManager LIMS can enable labs to carefully track inventory as part of a comprehensive lab management program. It’s even possible to create alerts about stock levels. The bottom line is that there IS a bottom line: manage it better, and you’ll not only avoid waste, you’ll avoid costly production delays that poorly position the lab within the overall enterprise.
Inability to Recognize Analytical Trends
Laboratory errors can be an early warning system. While many labs address errors after the fact, smart labs focus on predicting and preventing errors that mask QA/QC problems.
Today, more and more labs are turning to statistical quality control (SQC). SampleManager LIMS, for example, includes this capability, enabling technicians to detect nonconformance trending before it reaches pre-defined thresholds. This gives labs real-time monitoring capability that relies on statistical algorithms: the lab is observing data trends WHILE the analysis is running, not weeks later.
One missed error can cost thousands or more in lost productivity, consumable waste and, much worse, batch issues that lead to loading delays and costly demurrage charges. Identifying minor errors as they occur — because a LIMS-enabled SOP requires you to spot-check data at certain intervals — can mean the difference between profit and loss.
Electronic SOPs (ESOPs) are the lab’s defense against risk and the inevitable productivity declines that result from inconsistent procedures. With ESOPs defined in SampleManager LIMS, for example, there’s a pre-determined workflow with clearly defined technical corrective actions to ensure consistency and adherence to protocol. Without this, it’s too easy to make unintended errors.
LIMS have evolved to make management of SOPs easier and more efficient. This brings consistency that not only keeps productivity on track but also enables compliance with ISO 17025, which specifies the general requirements for the lab’s competence to carry out sample testing as well as instrument calibration, and ISO 14000, which lays the guidelines for establishing an effective environmental management system. Both ISO 17025 and ISO 14000 demonstrate an organization’s commitment to quality processes and provide its customers with the assurance that the laboratory’s management and technical requirements adhere to globally accepted best practices.
Lack of Traceability
A single laboratory may be responsible for hundreds or more tests each week. And analysts routinely spend a quarter of their productive time simply collecting data to defend a result. This can take away from time that should be spent contributing to productivity and profitability.
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Today, a LIMS can be integrated with systems across the enterprise: it still sits in the lab, but it integrates with data in PIMS (Process Information Management System), MES (Manufacturing Execution System), ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and other enterprise systems in ways that directly impact defensibility. Everything required to defend a result is aggregated and organized for rapid analysis and reporting within the LIMS.
Instrument maintenance is one of the most critical aspects of the day-to-day operations of any laboratory and is one area where a LIMS can enhance, not only productivity in the lab, but also defensibility of results and compliance with ISO standards. SampleManager LIMS enables users to monitor instrument health so that work can be assigned more effectively on a regular maintenance schedule. Users are notified of upcoming maintenance — even of wear-part failure, so that maintenance can be scheduled before failure becomes an issue.
Now, it’s more important than ever for labs to demonstrate that they can play a proactive role in driving productivity and profitability. But it’s hard to make that case when instruments are down or poorly calibrated and your lab is what stands between a business being fully operational and standing still. The LIMS can serve as an early warning system for instruments that need attention and for processes that are out of sync with the established SOP.
Conclusion: Small Steps Create Big Changes
A modern lab in the energy industry should be a productivity partner, capable of not only driving greater efficiency and profitability but also of mitigating future risk. Across the lab, everything must be closely scrutinized, especially everyday problems that can seem trivial but which can become a drain on productivity, resources and ultimately the bottom line. Closing these productivity gaps can have a demonstrable impact on efficiencies and profitability, not to mention easing the burdens associated with increasingly more onerous regulatory requirements.
The LIMS should be seen as a catalyst for an entire enterprise, not simply a tool for managing a lab. Then the lab can be positioned in a totally different light as a driver of productivity and profitability.