Wine Producer Gets Efficient Scheduling with LIMS

The implementation of a new laboratory information management system (LIMS) has expedited sample logging, analysis and results distribution for a large wine producer, saving time and enabling more efficient scheduling. The custom LIMS used in the past was basically an electronic version of the company’s previous paper-based system, requiring manual data entry at nearly every stage of the analysis cycle. The company, a customer of PerkinElmer Instruments (Shelton, Conn.) requesting anonymity in for this article, was originally a producer of jug wine that has also become a vintner of premium varieties. The company, according to PerkinElmer, made the decision to move to a more advanced system and selected a PC-based LIMS that can be configured to handle all common laboratory operations without the custom programming required by more traditional systems. The new LIMS also automates work order generation, records operations simply by scanning a barcode, electronically collects test data, automates calculations and delivers results to approvers and internal customers. The accurate collection and recording of test information is basic to the quality control process. You need to know exactly what was tested and accurately record the results so that problems can quickly be identified and corrected. “It used to take 8 to 24 hours from the time that the tests were completed for the results to move through our review system, be printed and delivered to the winemaker who was waiting for them,” says a chemist for the California winery. “Now, the data is available electronically as soon as the tests are completed. Getting the information sooner means that bottlers are able to schedule production much more efficiently.”

Software Selection Process

This winery continually evaluates where to grow grapes, how to grow them and how to make wine, according to the winery. The company’s quality assurance department provides on-going support and measurement of quality at every stage of the production process. The principle measurements that are performed include alcohol, sugar, volatile acids, titratable acids, pH and reducing sugars. These measurements are performed on automatic spectrophotometers and other sophisticated instruments. About 20 years ago, the winery developed a custom software package based on a RMS database that recorded test results. When a winemaker brought a sample to the lab, information about the sample was logged into the system. When a technician tested the sample, he would type the results into the system. Then, the test results were printed out, delivered to the person who had to approve them, then printed again and delivered to the winemaker. “We were looking for a way to improve the speed at which test results move through our laboratory in order to improve service to our internal customers, including winemakers and managers,” the chemist says. “Our primary requirements were for a Windows-based system that would be relatively simple and painless to install, customize and train our users to operate. We first surveyed many of the systems on the market, narrowed the field down to six, and then selected three for detailed investigation.” The winery selected a LIMS platform that is compatible with Oracle databases. It also supports Windows 95, 98, NT, 2000 and XP operation systems and Microsoft Access, SQL Server, SyBase, DB2 and a native database with the same user interface and add-on applications. The software was installed in four different company facilities and was configured so that a single database at headquarters stores all results to simplify maintenance and company-wide reporting. “We also liked the fact that the software could be configured to store the information we need, perform our calculations and generate reports in the format that we were looking for without requiring any programming,” the chemist says.

New Automated Workflow

The winery took advantage of the flexibility of the software to configure a new workflow that automates many aspects of the quality control process. Now, work orders for the majority of tests, which are repeated daily or hourly or at other intervals, are automatically generated by the LIMS’ platform process scheduler module. In addition, the LIMS interfaces with the wine producer’s process ordering system so that winemakers and other users can create electronic work orders for analysis. Both types of work orders are automatically added to the LIMS process scheduler. The work orders are initially queued as “not ready to collect” status. When a worker in the plant updates the status of the order to “ready to collect,” labels are automatically printed for each container that is needed for analytical testing. The worker collects the samples and simply scans the barcode to update their status as collected. Laboratory personnel pick up samples from the plant each hour and scan the barcodes to change their status to “in-transit.” When the samples arrive at the laboratory login counter, they are updated with yet another barcode scan to “waiting analysis.” This saves the time that was previously required at each step of the analysis process to query the database for the correct sample and manually update its status. The laboratory then performs the analytical testing. The instruments used for the vast majority of tests, including spectrophotometers, analytical balances, titrators and turbidimeters, have been interfaced to the LIMS through RS232 communications ports. The analyst scans the barcode on the sample vial and the instrument determines the analyses that are required, performs them and posts the results to the LIMS database. Automating the entry of the test results saves time for the highly-skilled analysts and eliminates the possibility of data entry errors. The LIMS also automates the calculations that are required for some tests. For example, regardless of the actual proof of brandy, its test results have to be normalized as if it were 100 proof. In the past, these calculations had to be performed by hand, which took time and raised the potential for errors. Now, test results are sent to an Excel spreadsheet where calculations are performed and logic operations are carried out and results are returned. While the process is automated, users can easily access the spreadsheet to view the calculations. If the test results need to be approved by a supervisor, they are automatically routed to that person who can call up a list of all items waiting their attention and quickly approve them or send them back for further work.

Increasing Scheduling Efficiency

“An important advantage of the new LIMS is that internal customers can view the data as soon as it is collected and validated,” the chemist says. “This is the crush season right now so our winemakers need to keep a close watch on tanks that are actively fermenting. Typically they order up tests on an hourly basis in order to keep an eye on the process. Staying in touch with the laboratory used to be very time-consuming. I would get continuous phone or radio calls from the winemakers asking if their results were ready yet. The new LIMS has automated the process to the point that results can automatically be e-mailed to the people that are waiting for them.” Winemakers and other clients can log in at any time to determine the status of any work order and view the results of tests that have been completed.” The use of a browser-based interface allows test results and other data to be viewed without the need to install or learn the client application. Viewing privileges can be limited by sample ownership status and age. Users can view reports, view exceptions and generate statistical quality control charts from viewed data. The biggest advantage of the new LIMS, according to the chemist, is the time saving that extends throughout the analysis process. “It used to take between 8 and 24 hours for a work order to proceed through the system and be delivered to the internal customer. The current process, which updates the status with a bar code scan, electronically transfers data from instruments to the LIMS and automatically delivers the results to customers, has reduced that to under an hour in most cases,” the chemist says. According to the vintner, getting results faster means the bottling room can schedule production more efficiently. “Nearly everyone involved in the process, including the customers, analysts and supervisors, saves a considerable amount of time due to the automation of the process,” the chemist adds. “Finally, the near elimination of manual data entry gives us much more confidence in the validity of the results because we don’t have to worry about transcription errors.” -FQ

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