In its simplest form, an electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) can be thought of as an electronic embodiment of what is currently being done in a paper laboratory notebook. It is a tool that facilitates the workflows that play out in your particular laboratory. However, laboratory information management system (LIMS), electronic laboratory notebook and lab execution system (LES) applications all support this basic definition to a greater or lesser extent. The capabilities of all these product categories are blurring. Today’s market perception is that an ELN is being used on a tablet and not on a traditional computer. An interesting detail worth mentioning is that, when the term “electronic lab notebook” was introduced in the late 90s, tablets didn’t exist at all!
Many laboratory operations are still predominantly paper-based. Even with the enormous potential to increase data integrity for compliance and global efficiency gains when working within virtual teams, significant barriers to implementing successful paperless processes still remain.
In 2012, Michael Elliott mentioned in his Scientific Computing column1 that “the explosive growth of tablet computing has taken many by surprise” and that “vendors are starting to test the waters.” An interesting statement, since it demonstrates how our industry lacks true innovation. We are masters of finding ways to be different, and we use all our scientific creativity to prove that we are right. So, what could be the reason why, in other industries, the tablet phenomenon was accepted so rapidly, and how can we learn and adopt from it?
In recent years, the electronic banking and travel industries, patient and healthcare, and retail industries have adopted new ways of working and have created significant benefits for their consumers. At the same time, the impact of this transformation resulted in a 20- to 40-percent cost reduction and improved throughput time.2
Many of these industries also have to comply with regulations, and with safety and security standards. Instead of learning from other industries, adopting best practices and optimizing them, we (suppliers, regulators, industry, etcetera) are all struggling to make a fundamental mindset shift to eliminate the vital barriers to create a huge adoption of new technologies.
- When did you last wait in line to check in for a flight at an airport?
- How often have you been able to reserve your favorite seat in advance?
- Have you mailed a check to initiate a financial transaction lately?
- Have you adjusted the way you communicate with your peers and colleagues during the last 10 years?
The bottom line is that we constantly adjust our own processes and mindsets to maximize our personal way of working.
So, how much has been changed in the way we capture experimental data from instruments in our daily laboratory work?
Over 75 percent of a laboratory experiment or analysis starts with some kind of manual process, such as weighing. The majority of the results of these measurements are still written down manually on a piece of paper or re-typed into a computer or tablet. ELN and mobile devices like tablets are married to each other. However, to connect a balance, you need to be an IT professor. Many modern ELN and LES systems do allow electronic connection to a network. However, to integrate simple instruments like a pH, balance, titration and Karl-Fischer instruments to mobile devices, a simpler approach is required in order to achieve mainstream adoption.
Complex protocols, expensive technical consultancy and difficult-to-validate processes are often avoided, resulting in retyping the same information over and over again. While the perception is that we reduce transcription errors, the reality in our daily laboratory activities is often the opposite.
In many other industries, LEAN “waste” processes are de-facto standard and have been adopted, resulting in significant reduction in what is required to “do it right” the first time, as well as reduction in unnecessary movements of people in parts between processes.
It is amazing how mainstream modern cars have adopted modern GPS and wireless technologies. Connecting any smartphone from almost any brand can be integrated into almost any car manufactured around the world. No need to be an IT professor to connect these devices. No need to be a computer expert to test and operate these (complex) devices. No need to buy expensive software updates or applications to enjoy music, get the shortest road to your favorite location or dial any phone number via your audio system. To lock your car — wireless and secured! So, why is it that, in our scientific industry, instead of adoring these great new (cheap) technologies, we are finding ways to avoid using them or ignoring them completely? During some of my recent surveys, I learned that new graduates are not familiar with RS232 connectivity. However, this connector still dominates laboratory instruments to connect to external devices. Explaining that the USB port is the modern replacement and that Bluetooth is the wireless equivalent opened their eyes.
During the latest SmartLab Exchange in Philadelphia and Paperless Lab Academy in Barcelona,3 I challenged the audience with this observation and invited suppliers, IT professionals and end users to participate in a trend watch discussion: Why are we not able to adopt well-accepted low-cost industry standard technologies in our industry? I was shocked that some laboratories are making photos of a balance display and then using optical character recognition (OCR) to trans- late the photo to a number in their tablet. What happens if a comma is interpreted as decimal point? We all know that in the USA and Europe the use of a . (dot) or , (comma) has a different meaning!
The point of no return has been passed. The acceptance of tablets and mobile devices will exponentially expand in the laboratory. The question is: When will we be able to integrate manual processes as seamlessly as we integrate our mobile devices in our personal lives?
There is no difference between securely pairing a Bluetooth device to car or computer and pairing a balance to an ELN application on a tablet. There is no need for fast-speed WiFi when we only want to transfer some simple digits from a pH meter to a tablet. There will be no need for expensive consultancy to make simple connections. The need for a plug-and-play standardized protocol, similar to those used for other occasions, is required. To make this happen, a united change of mindset also is required.
Finally, cheating is allowed, to re-align our scientific industry and to take advantage of what has been learned in other industries to adopt lean processes. I like to challenge the industry that pairing a balance with a tablet using an ELN application should be as simple as connecting a phone in your car. Some of us may remember the days of connecting a printer in the pre- plug-and-play era…
- Michael Elliott. Tablets and ELN – A Honeymoon – Scientific Computing August 2012
- McKinsey – ISPE Annual Meeting – Las Vegas – October 2014
- Paperless Lab Academy – Barcelona 2016 www.paperlesslabacademy.com
Peter Boogaard is the founder of Industrial Lab Automation and chairman of the Paperless Lab Academy. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.