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Standards needed for laboratory system integration

09.01.2011  |  Hollywood, Paula,  ARC Advisory Group, Dedham, MA

Keywords: [laboratory] [analyzer] [testing] [IT] [standards] [QA/QC]

Organizations in the hydrocarbon processing industry (HPI) and elsewhere frequently underestimate the value of the analytical laboratory to the enterprise. The perception is that the lab is a cost center that contributes little to product value. Production supervisors may view the QA/QC lab as a bottleneck as they await testing results before releasing product. This lack of visibility and understanding generally leaves the lab at the back of the line when budgets are allocated. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

Seamless flow of information.

The single-supplier laboratory is a rarity. The typical analytical lab is an assortment of analyzers and instruments from a host of suppliers, as it should be. End users should have the freedom to select what they believe to be the best tool for the job. The issue is that lab device suppliers typically use proprietary file formats. While this can be advantageous for the supplier, it leaves end users to wrestle with integration issues, both in the lab itself and within the enterprise’s IT systems. As more data and information are generated by plant laboratories, the need for data exchange formats becomes more acute.

Proprietary data formats result in a virtual Tower of Babel. There’s a lot of talking, but little understanding. This situation forces reformating data to communicate effectively with other systems. In addition to being tedious, reformatting is expensive and error-prone. Vendor-neutral data formats based on industry standards would alleviate incompatibility issues and facilitate integration inside and outside the lab.

The benefits from industry standards are well known. However, efforts to standardize the lab have not gained much traction. The OPC Foundation tackled the issue of a common data method for analyzers and data models and released the OPC Analyzer Devices Integration (ADI) Specification for integrating process analyzers with production control systems in November 2009. OPC ADI is a step in the right direction, but the ADI model is generic and requires adaptation prior to implementation. ADI must be incorporated into a UA Server and establish the address space according to the OPC UA specification for utilization.

Integration issues.

Instrument integration involves more than device connectivity. In a collaborative production environment, a strategy that aligns plant operations with the business needs of the enterprise is critical. Enterprises can achieve significant benefits through economies of scale, utilizing IT resources more efficiently, better alignment of IT with business needs, reducing implementation costs, lowering support and maintenance costs, and improving integration to create greater information visibility across the enterprise. With integrated systems, employees can make better decisions based on more complete and timely information.

New efforts to standardize.

The perceived lack of value for the analytical lab is due largely to the inability to access lab data easily. Recognizing that the inability to integrate laboratory systems impedes maximizing the effectiveness and productivity of laboratory work, the Institute for Laboratory Automation (ILA) in Groton, Massachusetts, is attempting to re-energize efforts to standardize and integrate laboratory systems. The Institute’s objective is to address issues inhibiting development of laboratory automation and the effective use of technologies in lab work. ILA’s project proposal is to investigate and pursue establishing a foundation for laboratory systems integration.

It is not ILA’s intention to start from scratch, but rather to leverage existing work. In the initial phase of the project, ILA will examine standards such as that of HL7 and the Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute (CLSI) to determine what could be adapted for general laboratory work. Assuming the project is deemed feasible and industry support is forthcoming, further work will commence.

Value of data.

Integrated instrument and laboratory data offer many benefits. These include improved data quality and transparency, ERP-level access to analytical data, maximizing throughput, improving product quality and reducing waste. Despite these benefits, lab integration continues to challenge manufacturers due to the lack of standardized file formats and interfaces. ARC Advisory Group believes that independent third parties, such as ILA, can provide the spark required to advance standardization.

ILA will not have to reinvent the wheel in this effort as others have blazed the standardization trail. As in the lab, HPI plants include a mix of devices that previously utilized proprietary software tools for configuration, operation, diagnostics and integration. This resulted in a complex automation architecture that was not user friendly and severely inhibited adoption of digital fieldbus technologies. Thanks to a number of different standardization efforts, this has been overcome. As a case in point, what began in 2003 as an ad hoc, joint interest group of automation suppliers, the FDT Group has morphed into an international organization focused on standardizing the interfaces between field devices and frame applications in automation systems. At present, 82 companies in the process and factory automation industries support FDT technology.

ILA seeks support from both the end-user and supplier communities to undertake this long overdue and desperately needed initiative. The Phase I deliverable would be an analysis of project feasibility and development plan for future work. For more information, readers can visit the Institute for Laboratory Automation at http://www.institutelabauto.org/index.html. HP

The author 

Paula Hollywood has nearly 30 years’ experience in the areas of sales and product marketing in industrial field instruments that utilize a vast array of technologies including magnetic, Coriolis, radar, electrochemistry, capacitance and ultrasonic. 

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