The City of Portland Water Pollution Control Laboratory began to face an increasing level of analytical and operational complexity in their daily activities. Unfortunately, their laboratory information management system (LIMS) didn’t have the functional capabilities to meet their evolving needs.
The leadership team looked for ways to automate many of the manual data entry tasks related to sample login, laboratory analysis, QC management, and report preparation and publication. After a lengthy public proposal process, the lab implemented Element LIMS from Promium.
Located in the City of Portland, Oregon, the Water Pollution Control Laboratory, is part of the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services Pollution Prevention Services group. The laboratory supports all the environmental testing needs of the City of Portland and some surrounding areas. That includes analyzing treatment plant effluent, industrial waste discharges, stormwater, rivers and streams, and soil from construction sites. On average, the lab performs 50,000 analyses on about 17,000 samples each year.
For over a decade, the laboratory had been using a commercial but customized laboratory information management system to help manage analytical and operational activities. While this system was adequate in the early years, as regulations, technologies, and standards have evolved the LIMS has not be able to keep pace with functionality. A desire for the Laboratory to become NELAC certified put additional pressure on the organization and the system.
The old LIMS software was out of date, not very user friendly and just couldn’t generate reports the way the laboratory wanted. “It wasn’t flexible, we couldn’t do all the types of reporting that we wanted to, and we couldn’t get instrument data downloaded [to the LIMS],” said Jennifer Shackelford, QC Coordinator and LIMS Administrator for the laboratory.
The laboratory would frequently have to go outside of the system to get things done—particularly with regard to reporting. Most data had to be hand entered. It could take on average about 15 minutes to enter information from just two samples. That manual effort took time away from other important tasks. And the existing system couldn’t comply with the growth and increasing complexity of regulatory requirements.
The City undertook a formal process to replace their existing information management infrastructure. A selection committee was assembled and a very detailed RFP (request for proposal) was issued. Five viable candidates submitted bids. After a first pass review of capabilities, the list was reduced to three vendors. The short-listed vendors did on-site demonstrations and presented system functionality. Selection criteria included the ability to handle data, ease of implementation, and a consideration for how soon the system could be implemented.
The team decided they wanted a system that was already designed for environmental testing instead of a more generic system that was highly customized to meet their needs. The concern was about the tradeoff between chasing an ideal of a perfect system and the reality of creating a never-ending project. “We didn’t want to spend two years setting up this program with ultimate flexibility but nothing set up for an environmental lab. We’d much rather go for something already set up for an environmental lab,” said Shackelford.
At the end of the review process, Element LIMS from Promium was selected. Implementation and training began during the summer months and was completed in late Fall before the holiday season. “We could have built the ultimate system and it would have taken a long time and we might still be in the process of implementing it. Instead we bought a system that matched a lot of what we wanted to do. It has the parts that we needed instead of having to think them up and program them in.”
Since the implementation was completed, the laboratory has seen a noticeable improvement in productivity and quality. Eliminating the hand entry of data was instrumental. This was especially true for 8260 and 8270 test methods. The task of entering sample information went from an average of up to fifteen minutes for two samples to the ability to enter an entire run—maybe thirty-five samples over two days—in the same time frame. Even for smaller tests like BOD and TSS, the technicians don’t have to do the calculations manually any more. Element LIMS does them automatically. “We don’t have to have to worry about calculations, we just check to make sure it looks normal and correct any red flags that might show up and that’s that. Instead of having to do the hand calculations, and then the hand data entry, and then checking the calculations, and then checking the hand data entry. So we’ve taken it from four steps to one or two. For the big instruments like ICP-MS and GC-MS that’s a huge time saver,” said Shackelford.
Jennifer Shackelford, LIMS Administrator
Being able to report QC (instead of attaching a separate document) and reducing errors with embedded calculations has improved quality control, but the ability directly generate control charts has been a great benefit as well. The control charts in particular provide the QA group and others with the ability to analyze data in a way that wasn’t possible before. And data can be viewed by project or by client or by other variables. And because the control charts are interactive, analytical method control limits can be updated from within the charts.
The new system was also a significant factor in receiving NELAC certification. The key is the inherent traceability and built-in audit trail in Element LIMS. “You have your sample results, then you can go back to the batch that it’s in. Then you can find whatever was used in that batch—all of the standards. And then you can go back to the standards and see how they were prepared, and then the information that the standards were prepared from. Everything is there. It’s connected,” said Shackelford. “The auditors like you to be able to pull up data quickly and easily and we can do that. It [Element LIMS] follows the steps that NELAC wants. You are able to know what it is you are reporting, for who, why, and where it is.”
Perhaps the most telling fact with regard to the transformation the laboratory has made is the number of people who use the information management system to do their job. With the old LIMS, there were three primary users because the system was so challenging. With Element LIMS, everyone in the lab uses it and has access to project information, sample data, test analysis, and operational and analytical reports. That includes fifteen people in the laboratory and a select few outside the laboratory that need access to key information. Shackelford sums it up. “Element LIMS is easy, it’s fast, it does what we need it to do.”