How To Streamline Your Data Aggregation Tools Using These Three Upgrades for Life Science

Lab Organization

Gel electrophoresis data. Source: Irène Mangin, Christophe Lévêque, Fabien Magne, Antonia Suau, and Philippe Pochart in PLOS One. [CC BY 2.5]
Maintaining a laboratory is a process of controlling chaos. A big part of the chaos comes from data generation and aggregation: In most laboratories, reagents, experimental apparatuses, common use computers and samples in storage are free-for-alls, with all of their attendant metadata left in a state of disarray. Most labs don’t even have methods for tracking the metadata for samples, reagents and equipment use, nevermind a centralized software hub that all logistical information feeds into.1

It goes without saying that labs could benefit tremendously from improvements in data aggregation and tracking. Thankfully, there are a few hardware and software tools which can help to tame the mess, provided that laboratory staff are willing to make use of them and integrate them with existing information technology infrastructure.

1. Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) Systems

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) chipping is an inexpensive and extremely powerful aid to logistical data aggregation in the laboratory, yet even now few labs have operational systems.

2 RFID systems can:

  • Track how frequently items in the inventory are used and allow for easier prediction of supply needs
  • Maintain a chain of ownership during use to prevent misuse or loss
  • Provide an additional record to accompany reagent lot numbers in the event of a problem
  • Feed data into an integrated information technology platform for real time location of objects as well as a record of their history

The major value addition of RFID chipping is that it moves the act of inventory data aggregation from a manual process into an automated one. Within the laboratory environment, RFIDs shine the brightest. A lab with an RFID system in place won’t need to manually take inventory and assess depletion of each reagent or ensure that each reagent is in its correct location; all reagents are scanned into storage and scanned out.

Smart labs integrate the additional step of scanning into the use location, creating a very clear chain of events that also allows for easy understanding of how long the reagent was out of storage, which is important. There won’t be any need to hunt around and question the usual suspects if a particular reagent is currently in use because the RFID will track it.

The barrier to entry into an RFID using lab is quite low because RFIDs are very cheap, as are the scanners. The biggest barrier is in organizational culture.3 If researchers are accustomed to “grab and go” the added scanning steps may be an annoyance.

2. Equipment Alerting Units and Dashboards

As most scientists and technicians are painfully aware, critical laboratory equipment like liquid nitrogen freezers, -80 C freezers, CO2 gas systems, incubators and others are notoriously unreliable and tend to fail at the worst possible time. What’s worse, if certain pieces of equipment fail, they may do so silently, and cause samples to be destroyed. This problem is made worse by the fact that equipment can frequently falsely report that it is failing, causing panic or delays when neither is necessary.

To complicate matters even further, many laboratories opt for manual aggregation of equipment data to ensure that things are running smoothly. Technicians are tasked with checking liquid nitrogen levels, measuring freezer temperatures, assessing CO2 gas levels and more, all by a visual inspection.

Manual inspection is a bad policy for a number of reasons. First, after a manual inspection, data is aggregated typically onto a paper record which is affixed to the device itself, making any kind of remote appraisal of the situation impossible. Second, manual inspection requires a technician to be on hand: impossible during the late nights when the freezers must continue to operate effectively. The hardware solution to this problem is the alerting unit.

Alerting units are clamped to the outside of the piece of equipment, and have a sensor that’s specific to the kind of data required to assess the equipment’s functionality. If the data escapes the user specified range, the alerting unit sends a message to someone so that they can come and fix the equipment’s issue. But the simple alerting pattern of the alerter units is far from the most effective solution to the problem of unreliable equipment because it lacks the software to create a point of reference which would allow for discrimination between false alarms and real problems.

The most effective solution to the remediation of unreliable equipment combines the alerting system hardware with an equipment data dashboard which users can access remotely. By routing the outputs of the alerting units to a unified dashboard, the laboratory can see a record of the equipment in normal times as well as during emergencies in one centralized location. This can help to prevent false alarms, and also help to get all hands on deck in the event of a series of simultaneous failures. Without the dashboard, the alerting units are little more than sensors that frequently bother people with false alarms. The dashboards which integrate with the alerting units can also integrate with LIMS as part of a universal laboratory information platform.

3. Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS)

The single most effective data aggregation tool that laboratories can implement is a laboratory information management system (LIMS).4 LIMS are typically understood as hubs for data upload and download, though more advanced systems incorporate inventory control, presentation management, collaboration, and equipment status dashboards.

Though many modern labs have LIMS, they don’t truly get the most out of their platform unless it can integrate 100% of the metadata and data produced within the lab into one centralized location that’s easy to explore and understand. Thankfully, there is such a LIMS for laboratories who need a single powerful solution to all of their data aggregation problems.

BIOVIA’s Unified Lab Management is the software that your laboratory can use to aggregate your equipment and reagent data in the context of all other experimental considerations. With Unified Lab Management, you’ll no longer have to juggle between logistical supply systems and data management systems because the entire contents of your laboratory will be aggregated into one central hub. From the hub, lab members can contribute data, provide reports, and give updates to confirm your equipment’s sensor data. Contact us today to find out how you can use Unified Lab Management to catapult your laboratory into the age of computerized laboratory research.

  1. “Data Issues In The Life Sciences.” November 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3234430/
  2. “A Review Of Radio Frequency Identification Technology For The Anatomic Pathology Or Biorepository Laboratory: Much Promise, Some Progress, And More Work Needed.” August 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3162748/
  3. “Save The Whales? Save The Rainforest? Save The Data!” July 2010, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01537.x/full?refreshCitedByCounter=true
  4. “Towards A Cyberinfrastructure For The Biological Sciences: Progress, Visions, And Challenges.” September 2008, https://www.nature.com/nrg/journal/v9/n9/full/nrg2414.html