LIMS vs. ELN vs. ERP: How to Choose the Right Software for Your Lab

Free Guide

How to Choose the Best LIMS

A comprehensive overview of the six key factors every lab must consider when picking a LIMS.

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For labs looking to move beyond pen and paper to scale their operations or meet various regulatory guidelines, there is no shortage of options.

From scientific labs to quality control or R&D labs, choosing the right software platform can be a difficult task – especially because no two options will support your lab in the same way. Along your journey, you will likely come across three different options:

  • An ELN
  • An ERP
  • A LIMS

We will break down the key differences between these software applications and when you should consider each one.

What is a LIMS?

LIMS is an acronym for Laboratory Information Management System; the first LIMS hit the market in the 1970s, and they have been an integral piece of an efficient and organized lab ever since. 

LIMS have evolved into sophisticated systems that support a wide range of laboratory activities, including:

  • Managing samples and tests
  • Generating reports
  • Providing a portal for customers
  • Handling billing and inventory
  • Syncing data from lab instruments
  • Automating repetitive tasks

A LIMS shines when it comes to organizing data at scale and streamlining your lab’s operations. Here are the most common use cases for a LIMS:

  • Sample tracking and management: A good LIMS will be an excellent asset for efficiently managing high volumes of samples from receipt to reporting. 
  • Workflow automation: Look for a LIMS with automation features that allow you to streamline and ensure data integrity.
  • Data integration and reporting: A LIMS can provide centralized storage and easy access to laboratory data, enabling quick report generation and historical data retrieval.
  • Instrument integration: For a lab with many types of instruments, a LIMS can be invaluable when it comes to seamlessly connecting them while automating data capture.
  • Compliance and documentation: While not every LIMS can support quality management and compliance, some (like QBench) provide out-of-the-box features to help labs meet regulatory requirements. 

As you can see, a LIMS can be a great asset for a lab looking to scale and better organize its operations. Be sure to check out our free guide on how to choose the best LIMS for your lab.

What is an ELN?

ELN is an acronym for Electronic Lab Notebook, a digital platform designed to replace traditional paper-based lab notebooks. 

Like a physical notebook, an ELN can help with the documentation, storage, retrieval, and sharing of experimental data and processes for a lab. Of course, the key distinction is that an ELN provides a digital copy of this rather than a paper copy. This can be especially useful for labs looking to digitize their records or labs with distributed teams that need to share data.

An ELN can be used for:

  • Experiment Documentation: Capture and search detailed experimental procedures, observations, and results.
  • Collaboration: Facilitate teamwork by sharing real-time research data and notes with colleagues.
  • Data Integration: Seamlessly integrate experimental data from laboratory instruments and databases.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Adhere to documentation requirements with audit trails, electronic signatures, and standardized entries.

Beyond digitizing a lab’s documentation, ELNs can offer various advantages, such as improved data security, improved traceability, and scalability for a lab. While both an ELN and LIMS can benefit a lab, there are distinct differences to be aware of that we will explore next.

How is an ELN different from a LIMS?

While an ELN may sound similar to a LIMS, recall that a LIMS can serve a much broader set of use cases, including:

  • Managing samples and test data.
  • Automating lab workflows.
  • Generating reports.
  • Integrating lab instruments.
  • Providing support for inventory and billing management.

An ELN, on the other hand, serves as a digital version of what a physical lab notebook provides. You can manually input data into an ELN and record notes and observations from tests. However, an ELN will not offer the same type of reporting and automation capabilities as a LIMS.

Many laboratories benefit from using a LIMS alongside an ELN to completely digitize their operations and data. If you need more than a digital record and source of truth, then a LIMS is a better choice for your lab.

What is an ERP?

ERP is an acronym for Enterprise Resource Planning. An ERP is a software platform organizations use to manage and automate a variety of business processes across multiple functions. 

An ERP is somewhat similar to a LIMS in that it can help automate processes and workflows. However, it is a more generalized piece of software. 

Unlike a LIMS, which is specifically designed for the use cases of a lab, an ERP is designed to be used by different departments of an organization. ERPs can be particularly valuable for larger organizations, where the complexity of operations can make maintaining consistency and efficiency across departments challenging. If you're considering an ERP, be forewarned: Gartner estimates that 55% to 75% of all ERP projects fail to meet their objectives, and a large percentage of ERP implementations go over budget, according to Statistica.

When it comes to labs, an ERP can be used for the following:

  • Sample Management: Track and manage samples from their receipt to storage to testing, ensuring timely and accurate processing.
  • Quality Assurance and Control: Monitor and document test results, calibrations, and validations, ensuring that products or samples meet required standards and specifications.
  • Inventory Management: Keep track of chemicals, reagents, consumables, and equipment, automating re-order levels and ensuring that critical resources are always available.
  • Project and Workflow Management: Plan, schedule, and monitor testing projects, optimizing laboratory workloads and ensuring timely completion of tests and analyses.

Again, an ERP is a more generalized piece of software, so let’s explore the differences between an ERP and LIMS next.

How is an ERP different from a LIMS?

On the surface, an ERP and a LIMS seem relatively similar.

Both can be used to manage data, streamline processes, and help an organization scale. The key difference to be aware of though is that an ERP is much more generalized, whereas a LIMS is specialized to the use cases of a lab.

Both a LIMS and an ERP can:

  • Help you capture, store, and manage data.
  • Automate workflows and processes.
  • Integrate different systems.

However, a LIMS is designed specifically for the needs of a lab and therefore will be much better suited to your use case than an ERP, which is more generalized and designed for a broader set of use cases. An ERP may work initially, but as your lab scales and your processes become more complex or need to adapt, you may need more support. 

A flexible and configurable LIMS can scale with your lab and support you as processes and workflows change. If you purchase a cloud-hosted LIMS, you can rest assured that a team of software engineers will continue to deliver features with the specific use cases of a lab in mind. 

LIMS vs. ELN and ERP, which one is right for your lab?

Between these three options, it can be hard to determine the right choice for your lab. 

When choosing a piece of software, it’s important to review how well the software supports your lab through the challenges you face as you try to scale. Here is a breakdown of common lab use cases and how a LIMS, ELN, and ERP stack up.

Sample and test management

Sample and test management are the most common use cases for a lab making the jump from pen and paper to software. Both an ELN and a LIMS can support sample and test management, as both platforms are designed for this purpose. Where a LIMS and ELN differ is that an ELN is designed more for data entry and documentation, whereas a LIMS provides more robust features on top of its support for sample management.

Data capture and reporting

Labs need to capture and report on data, especially labs that run tests at scale. 

An ELN can support you in documenting test results as well as sharing experiment and sample data, but a LIMS will provide a much more robust solution for data capture and reporting on the fly. This is where a LIMS can be especially useful as many will provide support for:

  • Sample management
  • Support for handling test requests (including a customer-facing portal)
  • Flexible reports and dashboards

Instrument calibration and monitoring

Whatever your use case, it’s imperative that your instruments are calibrated and working properly. 

This is again an area where a fully-featured LIMS (like QBench) stands tall between an ELN and an ERP, as it will provide you with everything you need to monitor instruments and calibrate them to ensure your lab maintains quality data integrity. A LIMS can provide additional support by alerting lab techs when out-of-calibration instruments should not be used.

Automate workflows

As your lab scales, automating key workflows and processes will help you stay efficient and get more done. This is where the right LIMS truly outperforms an ELN or ERP. 

While an ERP can help here, a LIMS is much more specialized for a lab’s needs. For instance, here’s a sample of the things a LIMS can automate for a lab:

  • Trigger processes for your lab.
  • Easily update a workflow or roll out a new one.
  • Save time by automating inventory consumption.
  • Run calculations, generate reports, and notify customers when results are ready.
  • Set up workflows between tools such as a customer portal, billing systems (such as Quickbooks), inventory management, and quality management systems.

Speed up your lab and get more done with QBench LIMS

In the quest to modernize and streamline operations, the options to choose from can quickly become overwhelming.

While an ELN and ERP may provide valuable features to digitize your records, they fall short of what a LIMS delivers when it comes to managing samples, reporting on data, fielding test requests, and monitoring instruments. If you already have an ERP or ELN and need to sync data between it and a LIMS, we can make that happen! Our modern, robust API makes integrating multiple systems a breeze.

QBench believes a LIMS should help your lab work smarter, with unparalleled flexibility to adapt to whatever the future brings. It’s one of the reasons we’re so proud that this commitment continually gets recognized by G2, where QBench was ranked highly for empowering labs to get more done and see better results.

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