Is Your Lab’s Barcoding Software Protocol Up To Date?

Designed to Cure

Barcoding in the context of laboratory operations is often a contentious topic, and with good reason. From the perspective of administrators, there’s no reason that every individual item in the lab shouldn’t have a barcode for tracking via software because of the proven benefits that barcodes provide.1 From the perspective of the technicians and scientists responsible for performing the operations of the laboratory, barcoding is a series of extra steps which don’t necessarily add value or ease of organization. In some cases, barcoding can make a lab operate worse than before, thanks to contorted workflows built around barcoding rather than having the barcoding protocol built around the scientific workflows and needs.2 The capstone in any barcoding protocol is the laboratory software that’s responsible for aggregating the scanned barcode data.

Picking The Right Protocol

Importantly, the software which accommodates barcode inputs has a unique set of challenges which may not be obvious. First, barcode scanning hardware is not by default compatible with laboratory information management software packages, despite how in theory the data is the same.3 Second, the software that handles barcoding inputs needs to be ready for the lab’s barcoding needs of today as well as the lab’s future barcoding needs, which will likely be wider in scope. This means that any laboratory information software which handles barcodes as an input needs to have user configurability in terms of the data that each barcode contains.

Barcoding also requires a barcode printer, which necessitates adding a number of items to the laboratory’s logistical footprint–this may seem like a minor point, but picking the right barcode printer is critical because the barcode printer must be optimized for the scale at which it will be used. There’s no point in getting a single-label scale barcode printer if the idea of implementing a barcoding system is to track thousands of samples, especially because user friendliness is already a major hurdle that every barcoding system will have to cross.4 Finally, there’s a limit to the amount of data that is stored on a single barcode, and there are several types of barcodes which vary in their data density as well as the quality of their reader hardware.

Before defining a barcoding system for the lab, researchers need to address the following questions:

  • What kind of items will be barcoded?
  • What data will the barcode contain about those items?
  • What barcoding reading hardware will be used?
  • What barcode printing software will be used? Is there an option in the lab’s LIMS to print barcodes, or will an additional software package be required?
  • What barcode printing hardware will be used?
  • How many barcoded labels will be printed each month? And how much will the consumables for the barcode printer cost?
  • Will there be required manual input for the contents of the barcodes, or will the barcodes be serialized?
  • How long will it take lab personnel to be trained in the use of the entire barcoding system?
  • How much time will the barcoding protocol add to the performance of the laboratory tasks which involve generating items that need to be barcoded?
  • How much time will the barcoding protocol add to the performance of the laboratory tasks which involve scanning in/out already barcoded items?
  • Can the data associated with a particular barcode or series of barcodes be changed via the LIMS or barcoding software to enable barcoding of dynamic items like a cell culture?

Answering these questions before procuring a barcoding system makes for a much better protocol, and should guide the decision of which items to purchase as well. Despite the barcode’s symbolic association with uniformity, no two laboratories will have the same barcoding protocols because every laboratory’s workflows are slightly different. Making sure that barcoding is an aid rather than an impediment is where the diversity of protocols makes all a difference. The best laboratory barcoding protocols are developed by thinking like an efficiency engineer.

Picking The Right System And Using It Correctly

Once the lab team has settled on a protocol, setting up the new barcoding hardware intelligently is important, too. Scientists rarely think of the physical movement of their samples as part of their workflow, but to incorporate barcoding it may be necessary to start identifying where a barcode printer makes sense relative to experimental workflows. If a protocol produces 100 different samples when completed but is kept in one vessel until that point, should the barcode printer be at the geographical start of the protocol, or at the geographical end? The instinct is to say “end,” but remember the act of barcoding an item itself takes time.

Depending on the type of samples that will be barcoded, it may make more sense to generate the barcode labels and affix them to the empty sample-vessels beforehand so as to allow for rapid conclusion of the experiment and a minimal impact on sensitive samples which may not tolerate being away from their preferred storage condition for very long. On the other hand, will this minimize the number of sample mixups, or make the problem worse? The answers for each lab will differ.5

In the same vein, identifying points where a barcode scanner would go is not a trivial concern. Typically at points of sample handoff between personnel is a place where a barcode scanner might be useful, assuming that sample handoff implies completion of a part of a protocol or commitment of a protocol’s output to storage. Once again, think like an efficiency engineer. If there is no forensically or proactively useful new information generated by scanning a barcode at a given point, don’t require it! Every scan takes time, and a clunky LIMS can make scanning into an even slower process.

Tracking Specimens In Harmony

Thankfully, there is a barcoding-enabled laboratory information system which your lab can use to track samples gracefully and faultlessly. Using BIOVIA’s Designed to Cure, your lab’s barcoding protocol will be easy to setup using a variety of different hardware solutions, and you’ll have access to many variations of data storage, specimen generation, and scanning options.  Contact us today to see how Designed to Cure can help your lab implement sample barcoding efficiently and painlessly.

  1.  “The Top Eight Benefits Of Barcodes.” 2017, http://verifiedlabel.com/knowledgecenter/know_barcodes.aspx.
  2. “Barcoding.” 2013, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4614-9581-9_10.
  3.  “Compound Library Management.” 2002, https://link.springer.com/protocol/10.1385/1-59259-180-9:117.
  4. “Organization Of Biomedical Data For Collaborative Scientific Research: A Research Information Management System.” 2010, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0268401209001182.
  5.  “Biopreservation and Biobanking.” 2016, http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/bio.2015.0055.