How to Choose the Best LIMS for Your Lab

Laboratory Information Management Systems, or LIMS, are powerful tools for streamlining lab operations and throwing away spreadsheets forever. But with so many LIMS options on the market, choosing the perfect one for your lab's specific needs can be overwhelming. In this comprehensive guide, we'll cover six key factors to consider and practical tips for selecting the best LIMS for your lab.

A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) can offer tremendous benefits to any lab by saving your lab time, improving accuracy, and providing access to data for your entire team.

Choosing the right LIMS can be a hefty task. There are many to consider, and deciding whether one platform is a better fit than another for your lab’s specific needs and workflows can be a large task. If the thought of comparing numerous software platforms and their features against each other is enough to give you pause, we hope this guide will help you see through the clutter and make the right choice for your lab.

After reading this guide, you will be well-versed in what a LIMS is, how a LIMS can benefit your lab, and what to look for when choosing a LIMS.

What Is A LIMS?

First time choosing a LIMS?

A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is software that helps labs:

LIMS Workflow Management
  • Manage and organize data
  • Track samples
  • Automate processes and workflows
  • Manage inventory
  • Handle invoicing and billing
  • Create reports on the fly
  • Integrate lab instruments

The first LIMS hit the market in the 1970s, and they have been an integral piece of an efficient and organized lab ever since.

Today, LIMS have evolved into sophisticated systems that support a wide range of laboratory activities, from sample management and quality control to data analysis and reporting. They’re rich in features, networked across devices, and built with multiple goals in mind.

A LIMS isn’t the only piece of software a lab could use to organize their data though, so let’s see how a LIMS stacks up against an ELN.

How Is A LIMS Different From An ELN?

Along your journey in choosing a LIMS, you will likely come across platforms that offer an Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) - are these the same as a LIMS, though?

While a LIMS and an ELN play essential roles in streamlining a lab's operations, they serve distinct functions.

A LIMS is best suited for:

  • 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, ELNs don’t offer the same 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 than relying solely on an ELN.

How Is A LIMS Different From A QMS?

Like an ELN, a QMS (Quality Management System) is another software platform that can be confused with (or integrated with) a LIMS.

LIMS integrated with QMS

A QMS helps labs manage quality control processes more efficiently. A QMS detects errors in a lab process and helps ensure accuracy and reliability. As you can see, a QMS can be extremely powerful - especially if your lab has strict quality control requirements. 

A LIMS, on the other hand, can serve a broader scope of use cases than a QMS, providing labs with a much more comprehensive solution. With a LIMS, you can:

  • Manage samples and tests for your lab
  • Track inventory
  • Monitor test statuses
  • Generate reports
  • Manage invoicing and billing
  • Provide a portal for your customers to access

And yes, some LIMS platforms include features for quality management. In fact, the QBench LIMS includes a suite of quality management tools that allow you to:

  • Track quality records
  • Track instrument calibration and maintenance records
  • Create and update standard operating procedures
  • Create and update training materials
  • Store all lab documentation

A QMS is often a vital piece of software for a lab, though if you select the right LIMS, it may include many of the quality management features that your lab will need or may integrate with your preferred QMS. Learn more about the difference between a LIMS and a QMS in our guide.

Should You Buy Or Build A LIMS?

We work with many first-time LIMS buyers, and while it may be their first time using a cloud-hosted LIMS, it won’t be the first time they have tried to manage data and inventory for a lab.

Many labs start with some form of a homegrown LIMS, which could be as simple as a combination of spreadsheets (either Excel or Google Sheets) with pen and paper or as robust as a self-hosted software platform built for their specific use cases.

If you find yourself stuck between staying with a homegrown solution built on spreadsheets/custom software or moving to a cloud-based LIMS solution, we would ask:

  • Is it important to your lab to have a cloud-hosted solution that everyone can access?
  • Does your lab need to adapt quickly to changing processes or requirements?
  • Do your needs and requirements change over time?
  • Do you want to spend more time growing and scaling your lab and less time managing a homegrown solution?

If the answer to any of those questions is “yes,” then we would strongly recommend that you invest in a cloud-hosted SaaS LIMS instead of using spreadsheets or custom software to serve the same purpose. Check out our guide on whether you should buy or build a LIMS for more on this topic.

Six Key Factors To Consider When Choosing A LIMS

It’s no understatement to say that a LIMS can help your lab improve its efficiency and scale, so we understand this is a considered choice. When evaluating multiple platforms and their assorted features, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s best for your lab.

That’s why we have grouped six keystone components of a LIMS that you should look for and use to evaluate the platforms you choose from:

  1. Flexibility
  2. Cloud vs. on-premise servers
  3. APIs
  4. User-friendliness
  5. Workflow automation
  6. Implementation timeline

Every lab is different, and will rank these based on their workflows. That is perfectly okay; there is no “right” or “wrong” way to combine these building blocks. Lab managers who keep their processes, needs, and staff center stage when determining which LIMS is right for them will have the best experience choosing and implementing a LIMS.

Let’s walk through these six components to help you judge which LIMS is right for your lab.

Choose A LIMS That Is Flexible 

Flexible LIMS and Configuration

We’ve worked with many labs that were expanding beyond what their homegrown LIMS could handle. For example, a homegrown agricultural LIMS could enable an agricultural lab to manage a few standard soil analyses, and a homegrown clinical LIMS would run diagnostic tests. They would track samples through testing and generate reports. 

This system works perfectly fine; it’s easy for the staff to learn and gets the job done. But what if this lab were to expand rapidly? Or what if new regulations were introduced, such as changes to ISO standards (17025, 9001) or FDA 21 CFR part 11? While these home-grown systems work for some time, it quickly becomes an expensive challenge when needs and use cases change.

As time passes, this homegrown system can quickly become unmanageable as new software and processes get added. This results in a cluttered lab environment with multiple dashboards, ad-hoc programs, and increasingly complicated processes.

Some cloud-based LIMS still have rigid workflows that require custom code when you need a change. However, some vendors built their systems with change and adaptation in mind. That helps labs stay agile, adding processes to appeal to multiple segments of an industry or even expanding to a new one.

All labs face some change, and many LIMS offer some flexibility. Buyers need to consider their need for two kinds of flexibility: configurability and customization. What’s the difference?

  • More flexible LIMS are highly configurable. To configure a LIMS, users will not need coding skills. They can make changes right in the user interface. These are ideal for labs without internal development resources or that have decided that hiring and retaining developers is not one of their core competencies. This approach allows users to design new workflows or update existing ones instantly. Users can add fields, save filters, and add tags to any data type they need.
  • More Rigid LIMS Rely on Customization. Many LIMS are customizable but often require a software developer with experience (or even a certification) to work with their proprietary or non-standard APIs to customize the system effectively.

Some labs are served best with a flexible LIMS that is both highly configurable and highly customizable. After all, more flexibility is seldom a problem. But a LIMS with little flexibility not only means lost business but can also result in low productivity and poor user adoption when specific options aren’t available to staff.

When Should Your Lab Prioritize Flexibility?

Labs that face any of the following changes over time should consider a highly flexible solution:

  • Business growth.
  • Increasing need to manage their platform internally.
  • New regulations in their industry (updates for ISO or the FDA).
  • Ongoing security certification audits.
  • Accreditation.
  • Changes in testing requirements.

Cloud-based vs. On-Prem LIMS

After flexibility, you must also decide whether your LIMS will be cloud-based or on-premises.

Keeping servers on-premises (on-prem) means your lab will have more direct control over your hardware capabilities and the physical location of your data. After all, you own the servers and can control where they're installed and where they fit in your network.

That control comes with drawbacks:

  • High upfront setup costs exist for on-prem servers and licenses, storage capacity, and upgraded broadband.
  • A dedicated physical space to house new infrastructure and hire IT staff to maintain it.
  • You will need to implement and run security controls and procedures.
  • Ongoing costs to maintain these systems can increase. You will need to create backups and manage data recovery, patches, and cooling. 
  • To enable remote access (as is common with a distributed workforce), you must have proper hardware and software (firewalls and VPN) or risk exposing your corporate network to intruders.
  • Your lab should use matching operating systems throughout the system to ensure compatibility and simplify maintenance.
  • The entire system will need regular updates and maintenance over time.

On-prem security often can’t measure up to cloud systems, either. These systems can be slower to get security patches and are vulnerable to risks from connected devices. You can manage some of these responsibilities with service contracts for support, but you’ll want to ensure it’s accessible. That’s because you may need on-site help if you maintain security by foregoing cloud access to your system. 

A cloud-hosted SaaS (software as service) solution means a third party owns the software you are using, and your lab just has to pay for a license to use it. 

Many of the drawbacks cited above (security, data backups, IT, staffing) are taken care of by the software provider, meaning your lab can focus more on using the software and less on maintaining it. This approach requires no licensing, ongoing compliance certification, or upfront capital costs. Multiple devices and operating systems can connect seamlessly for staff working remotely or traveling.

Instead of high upfront costs, the cost of a cloud system is spread over time, often paid via the number of users. Major upgrades get included, too. Not having to contend with support or security obligations can offer companies peace of mind and contain costs.

When Should Your Lab Prioritize A Cloud-Based LIMS?

Labs that face the following should consider a cloud-based LIMS instead of an on-prem LINS.

  • Labs whose security requirements don’t require a locked-down, on-location solution.
  • Labs that do not already have strong IT teams that can handle the workload of an on-prem system.
  • Cash-wise labs.
  • Labs that are seeking tech-forward growth solutions.

A Robust API For A Better LIMS Experience

One major benefit of a LIMS is integrating your systems and tools to improve your lab’s efficiency and organization.

To set your lab up for success with proper integrations, you need a well-documented and developer-friendly RESTful API. A good API means your LIMS can communicate with other software, eliminating double work and data entry errors. 

Think about which use cases you need:

  • Instrument Integration: Connect laboratory instruments with the LIMS for automatic integration and a comprehensive view of your data. Like freezer management, LabX, and plate readers, any instrument controlled by a software platform can be integrated. In that way, systems that do more than just talk—they share data in a deep capacity, including workflows.
  • Data Import/Export: Import or export data from external systems or to other systems. It allows you to move data from spreadsheets to a centralized platform where you can run tests, reports, or invoicing. You can even use AI to make better decisions about it.
  • Report Generation: Generate custom reports from LIMS data by integrating with external reporting systems.
  • User Authentication: Authenticate users of the LIMS alongside other systems that require user authentication.
  • Pipelining Samples Post-sequencing: So that secondary analysis is automatic.
  • Dashboard Integration: Integrate LIMS data with a dashboard or visualization tool. This enables real-time monitoring of laboratory processes and provides insights into lab performance.
  • Better User Experience: Without opening multiple programs, a LIMS can perform tasks like connecting to your customer email platform and sending a notification once test results are ready. It’s instant, automated, and improves your relationship with customers.

Overall, an API increases the flexibility of a LIMS. But there are some circumstances when a robust API isn’t necessary. You may not need a robust API if you don’t have software and instruments to integrate, have only a few users, or have only simple workflows.

When Should Your Lab Prioritize A Robust API?

Labs that face the following challenges should invest in a LIMS with a robust (and developer-friendly) API:

  • High-throughput laboratories: Laboratories that process a large number of samples can use the API to automate data entry and streamline workflows resulting in faster turnaround times and added capacity to grow their businesses.
  • Multi-disciplinary laboratories: Laboratories that perform multiple tests can benefit from integrating data from multiple instruments. They believe an innovative lab runs on efficiency and interoperability across systems so they can accomplish more.
  • Regulatory-compliant laboratories: A robust API provides better tracking and traceability of samples and data, facilitating more straightforward compliance reporting.
  • Labs that integrate with external databases: They can use API capabilities for sample tracking and management and streamlining data entry and analysis.

Any laboratory that values automation, integration, and efficiency in data management could benefit from a LIMS with a robust API. But in the end, they’ll have to have the tech chops to integrate systems.

Choose A LIMS That Is User-Friendly

Configuring a LIMS To meet staff needs leads to greater internal control, simple changes, and high adoption. That means your LIMS will be better at doing its job, reducing errors, and boosting productivity.

Look for these components:

  • Intuitive Interface: A user-friendly LIMS should have a clear interface that is easy to navigate. Users should be able to quickly find the information they need and perform tasks without consulting a manual or receiving extensive training.
  • Customizable Workflow: A LIMS should accommodate a laboratory's unique workflow, including any specific data entry and reporting requirements. The LIMS should be flexible enough to allow the laboratory to customize workflows and configure the system to fit their specific needs.
  • Simple Data Entry: Data entry is a core function of a LIMS, and a user-friendly LIMS should have a simple and efficient data entry process. The system should be able to capture data quickly and accurately, with built-in validation checks to prevent errors.
  • Comprehensive Search and Reporting Capabilities: Can users search for and retrieve data easily? The system should be able to generate customized reports without requiring advanced technical skills.
  • Responsive Support: How responsive is the technical support team users rely on when issues arise? Support should be available when needed, and experts at resolving problems quickly.
QBench LIMS High Performer G2 Badge Fall 2023

In fact, QBench LIMS was ranked highly by G2 for ease of use and boosting lab productivity, making it a fantastic option for labs looking for a LIMS that is as user-friendly as it is configurable and powerful. 

When Should Your Lab Prioritize User-Friendliness?

Labs that face the following challenges should prioritize user-friendliness when choosing a LIMS:

  • Labs that benefit from making sure they enter data, label, and track samples accurately.
  • High-volume labs, where errors and safety are paramount.
  • Labs that hope to grow their sample volume without increasing errors.

Choose A LIMS With Automation Capabilities

Labs of all industries and sizes will benefit from setting up workflows and automating processes. 

Here’s a sample of the things you can automate for your lab:

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

Whether you need to easily configure workflows, trigger an automated process, or make updates to these automations as requirements change - your lab will likely benefit from a LIMS that can provide automation.

 The most configurable and flexible LIMS will include automation engines that allow you to trigger specific actions or data syncing based on events in the system.

Ask how important it is for your lab staff to add and alter workflows related to:

  • Sample Tracking: Can the LIMS automatically assign unique sample IDs and route samples through their lifecycle?
  • Automating Data Entry: Can the LIMS integrate with laboratory instruments or other external systems? Think about if you’ll want to trigger actions in the LIMS based on events in other systems. For example, you could trigger the creation of a new sample record in the LIMS when a sample is received from a sample tracking system. 
  • Handling Electronic Signatures: Can the LIMS automate electronic signatures for results and reports, allowing laboratory personnel to sign off on results?
  • Calculating Results: Can the LIMS automate the calculation of results, applying appropriate statistical methods and quality control procedures?

Generating Reports: Can the LIMS automatically generate customized reports from multiple tests and data sets across systems?

When Should Your Lab Prioritize Automation?

Most labs will be able to grow through automation, offloading repetitive tasks so lab talent can handle more complex work. Labs that benefit from a LIMS with workflow automation capabilities are labs where:

  • Processes are complex, with multiple steps.
  • Processes are already handled by machine systems and don’t require manual processes to handle and interpret samples.
  • The lab processes medium to high sample volumes, so automation results in significant efficiency savings.

Choose A LIMS With Speedy Implementation

Like any piece of software, a LIMS will need to be implemented for your team to set your lab up for success and ensure things are working properly.

The implementation time of a LIMS (Laboratory Information Management System) varies widely depending on several factors, including:

  • The size and complexity of the laboratory.
  • The specific features required.
  • The LIMS vendor's implementation process.

But that doesn’t mean interruptions to your lab are a prerequisite for implementing a LIMS that will add flexibility to your lab processes for years. While it’s common to hear industry stories of implementations that take a full year, you might be able to implement your LIMS in fewer than two months, certainly less than 12.

Look at the implementation process for a LIMS typically in all its phases, including:

  • Project scoping 
  • System configuration
  • Data migration
  • Testing
  • Training

Each phase can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks, depending on the scope and complexity of the project. Faster implementations cause less disruption and stress for stakeholders. And they don’t have to limit the performance you get from a new LIMS. Ask whether a LIMS team spends time upfront understanding your requirements, is responsive to your needs, and how much time it will take to transition to your LIMS.

When Should Your Lab Prioritize Quick Implementation?

Labs that are under the following challenges should look for a LIMS with quick implementation:

  • Labs with a compliance deadline.
  • Growing labs looking to ramp up their integrations and capacity quicker.
  • Labs in the process of switching LIMS vendors.
QBench LIMS Best Results Badge Fall 2023

Get More out of your LIMS with QBench

Overall, a lab that does not implement a LIMS misses out on the benefits of integrated laboratory operations, data management, and simpler compliance. A LIMS helps streamline laboratory workflows, improves data quality and traceability, and enables better decision-making based on accurate and reliable data.

QBench believes a LIMS should help your lab work smarter, with unparalleled flexibility to drive 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 from our LIMS.

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LIMS, QMS, Inventory Management, Billing, and Customer Portal all-in-one illustration