Mobile informatics. Image: Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.Imagine that you’re a field technician for a public water provider in a developed nation. Your company is committed to supplying clean, safe drinking water to millions of people, so it has implemented a sophisticated water sampling program to ensure water is free of contaminants. Across this water company’s territory, technicians are collecting and testing samples from reservoirs, water treatment facilities and even customers’ homes.

Today you’re collecting samples from various points around a lake that supplies water to one of your company’s main processing facilities. After filling each sample bottle, you transcribe its barcode into your notebook. You check your watch and jot down the time. You remember to add a preservative that ensures the sample gives accurate readings after it has been transported to the laboratory. Finally, you pull out a GPS unit and note your exact location coordinates. When you get back to the laboratory, all of this information—recorded manually—will need to be re-entered into a database and combined with the test results.

As you pack up your notebook and GPS, it hits you: All of this data could more easily be collected—not to mention transmitted back to the laboratory—on a single device: the iPhone in your pocket.

Mobile devices are an increasingly critical component of modern life, and that trend holds true for laboratories as well. Regardless of industry, the incredible and constantly evolving features on these devices can enable technicians to easily capture new types of data more accurately and from more remote locations. But they also pose an interesting challenge. How do laboratories ensure that all the data collected via mobile devices is accurate, secure and organized? The answer is a laboratory information management system (LIMS). Just as a LIMS enables an automated, paperless environment inside the laboratory, it can integrate with mobile devices in the field to ensure that data collection, transmission and analysis are fully optimized.

New devices, new opportunities
The most straightforward benefit mobile devices bring to the laboratory is more data. The more data that laboratories have available, the more effective they can be, provided that the data is organized and accurate. That’s where the LIMS comes in. Going back to the example of the water sampling technician, if his or her camera, GPS, wristwatch and notepad were replaced with a company-issued smartphone, he would be able to record all information on a single device. This not only saves the company money by purchasing and servicing a single device instead of several, it also improves the technician’s accuracy because he no longer needs to rekey data based on his notes from the field. It also walks him through all the necessary steps when collecting the sample to ensure consistency.

A LIMS enables users to transmit information directly from the field into the database, eliminating error-prone manual transcription. The ability to go completely paperless means the technician is no longer bound by the physical constraints of the laboratory itself. The LIMS ensures that location information, barcode reading, precise timing and any other data the technician collects are linked directly to the test results. In other words, combining mobile devices and a LIMS brings a sampling program’s entire chain of custody under one secure umbrella. This enables improved regulatory compliance, traceability and auditing. It also makes for better management.

One of the greatest advantages of mobile devices is that they’re a two-way street. Not only can users submit data to the LIMS, they can also examine and look at data on a device without physically entering the laboratory. Modern LIMS—such as Thermo Scientific SampleManager 11—offer connectivity with mobile devices that allow laboratory personnel to visualize results from high-level trends down to granular details.

For laboratories performing extensive chromatography runs, for example, data must constantly be monitored to ensure results match up with reference data. Scientists aren’t interested in general results alone, they want the ability to drill down to the level of individual components and peaks. A LIMS provides access to interactive data—not just a static image such as a JPEG or PDF—from a mobile device, allowing the laboratory to run far more efficiently. The same goes for automated alerts on sample runs. Mobile devices linked to the LIMS allow users to make a decision from a remote location about whether an outlying result requires a retest or a full investigation, preventing unnecessary delays. Because of these visualization and connectivity advances, laboratory personnel are free to be more creative as they design workflows. Data management is no longer a limiting factor in the laboratory; instead it is a driving force for innovation.

Another way mobile devices increase the amount of data available to laboratory managers as they create workflows is by enabling additional users to submit information to the LIMS. For example, a loading dock worker who has never heard of LIMS can use a mobile device to scan barcodes on shipments of samples or other materials, then upload that data directly to the LIMS. This works well for correcting issues with suppliers, since shipments can be checked for broken or missing items and compared to the shipping manifest at the loading dock without the need for a laboratory technician’s involvement. A loading dock worker can record photographic evidence and store it in the LIMS until the problem has been resolved.

The challenge of mobile devices
The benefits of mobile devices are undeniable, but new technologies also present new challenges for laboratories. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the “bring-your-own-device” (BYOD) trend: Employees, from the C-Suite to individual technicians, now have preferred mobile devices. If a personal device has a certain capability that a user likes, why shouldn’t it be used in the workplace?

As IT professionals know well, BYOD brings a host of issues, from information security and regulatory compliance to software compatibility. But these concerns have done little to stem the oncoming tide of hybrid personal/professional devices. Once a CEO becomes accustomed to his or her home tablet, there’s no turning back. Laboratories have so far typically avoided BYOD policies, especially in life sciences industries, due to sensitivities around intellectual property protection. In pharmaceuticals laboratories, for example, the risks involving counterfeit drugs are too great, and the regulations too rigorous, to allow technicians to use personal mobile devices to submit or analyze sample data.

Technologies which address these concerns are becoming more widely available, allowing companies to segregate corporate data from personal data on mobile devices. All company-related activity occurs in a “sandbox” over which the IT organization has full control and which they can wipe remotely if the device is lost or stolen, or if an employee leaves the organization. This satisfies intellectual property and security concerns while allowing employees autonomy over their personal data. Enterprises are already using such technologies with company-issued devices, but it is clear that they have even greater applicability in BYOD scenarios.

Another challenge in integrating mobile devices with a LIMS is setting expectations. As anyone who has visited an app store can attest, devices are well-suited to highly focused applications but not as strong when it comes to broad capabilities. Manual data entry, for example, is not an efficient use of a mobile device. That’s why LIMS—such as SampleManager 11—offers streamlined connectivity to mobile devices. When users pull up SampleManager on their smartphones, the interface is noticeably different from what they would see on a desktop. Information, such as analytical charts and real-time results, is optimized for mobile devices. The key is to design application workflows that are well-suited to the mobile form factor and that take advantage of these devices’ capabilities. With this approach, users quickly see the value in the right context.

Which industries lead the way?
While nearly all laboratories will integrate mobile devices with a LIMS in the future, some companies are still reticent. So which industries are early adopters? Process industries, such as water utilities and oil and gas, which require remote sampling across large plants or geographies, have been among the first on board. Using mobile devices to scan bar codes or radio frequency identification tags and submit samples to the LIMS gives management access to more data in near real time. This timely information allows a company to be far more nimble, while oftentimes producing superior products.

Even regulation-saddled life sciences companies are using LIMS to integrate mobile technologies within the laboratory—albeit through company-supplied devices only—in both R&D and production environments. When samples are thawed in preclinical testing, for example, they lose some integrity. So pharmaceutical companies are now using mobile devices to scan barcodes each time a sample is removed from a freezer or replaced to be refrozen. While this could be done manually, as common practice, readings wouldn’t reach the LIMS automatically and freeze-thaw events would often be missed, providing an incorrect evaluation of the sample’s condition.

Environmental monitoring in life sciences, which has sampling requirements outside of the laboratory, is another fit for mobile devices. Mobile device/LIMS integration improves testing by providing precise timestamps and more timely submission of results. Issues can be detected early on, before an entire batch of product is contaminated.