NFC May Bring Efficiency, Accountability to Laboratories

By Claire Swedberg

Test and research labs are tracking the chemicals and other samples used for their scientific work, by tagging products with open-detection labels and capturing data about the use and storage of each item via a solution from MilliporeSigma.

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Life sciences company MilliporeSigma has launched an RFID solution for research and testing laboratories, intended to improve lab efficiency, safety and data-capture accuracy. The dual-frequency tag works with Near Field Communication (NFC) currently, but will also transmit at UHF in the future.

The solution tracks each individual chemical or consumable product used in a lab, detects when it has been opened and provides data regarding pending expiration dates. It is also intended to automatically collect and manage data about how the products are used, thereby reducing the need for the manual inputting of information by busy lab technicians.

The Lab Inventory, Safety and Compliance Management System (LANEXO) was developed by MilliporeSigma with the support of several key laboratory customers, says Christian Kuechenthal, the company’s head of smart consumables. MilliporeSigma, with a Life Science Center in Burlington, Mass., provides scientists and engineers with lab technologies and solutions, Kuechenthal explains. The group supplies technology to help labs bring pharmaceutical products to customers faster.

Both test and research laboratories employ a large number of chemicals and consumables in the process of developing and testing new drugs. Some of these compounds are highly sensitive and may have a short expiration date that is affected by the opening of a container or packaging, while some chemicals must be stored separately from others for safety purposes.

Traditionally, lab technicians manually track these items by reading the printed labels, and by recording data on lists and spreadsheets indicating where items are being stored and when they are used. During testing or development work, clinicians often must also manually record what was used during an experiment. According to Kuechenthal, approximately 85 percent of laboratories that the company polled indicated they used pen and paper and manual data input to track their products and in-lab activities.

That’s a large challenge for large laboratories, which can have hundreds or thousands of different chemicals onsite at any given time, each of which needs to be closely managed. This information is critical to make sure that the laboratory meets stringent guidelines from government bodies, Kuechenthal says, and to ensure the quality of the drug that will be used by patients. Therefore, MilliporeSigma sought a better method for laboratories to manage its chemicals and other compounds.

The company aims to solve technology problems in laboratories. “We’ve worked closely with our strategic accounts,” Kuechenthal says, to identify the types of solutions that would help labs manage inventory. “We said to our customers ‘Let’s think through the workflow of a consumable or chemical in a lab’,” he adds, in order to track the movements of these high-value items, as well as create historical records about how they are used, “where you have touch points that are not efficient enough.”

Many labs use a software system known as the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS). In some cases, rather than inputting data manually, they utilize barcodes on products so that they can scan them to access information about those items. The shortcoming of barcodes, however, is the need for a clean line of sight, according to Kuechenthal.

The environment can include spilled chemicals, ice or other materials that could block a barcode label from being properly scanned. Compounds can also be stored in vials that are typically about the size of half a pinkie finger, which means large amounts of data cannot be printed on them, such as expiration dates and batch numbers. Sometimes, specific notes are attached to products as well, but those can be knocked off during storage or use. MilliporeSigma says its RFID solution is intended to address these challenges.

The company developed a passive 13.56 MHz NFC tag compliant with the ISO 14443 and UHF 18000 standards, which can also be read via an NFC-enabled mobile phone or tablet. The label can also detect if the container to which it is attached has been opened. Each label is attached to a vial’s lid, and the seal must be broken in order to open the sample. The unique ID encoded on the tag is then transmitted when interrogated, with a status indicator showing that it has been opened.

Here’s how laboratories will use the solution: Users can download an Android-based app on their phone or tablet, then create their own ID number in the system. The cloud-based software enables management to view inventory data via a Chrome, Internet Explorer or Firefox browser. As each new product is entered into the system, a tag is attached to the closed container. Users can interrogate that tag via a phone or tablet, then use the LANEXO system to link the tag ID with other data about the product, including its batch number and expiration date, when the container is closed, or after it is opened.

To deploy the solution, labs would attach an adhesive NFC or UHF label to the front of each cabinet and storage area. The label’s ID number would be linked to that cabinet or space in the software and app. As a product is put into storage, a user would open the app, read the tag at the cabinet and then interrogate the tag on the product in order to link the two together. The app receives the data and displays relevant information. For instance, if a product is highly flammable and should not be stored with another product that is corrosive, the app would display a warning on the user’s phone or tablet, ensuring that such as mistake wouldn’t take place. The system then stores that item’s location, along with the identity of the person who put it there.

If the container is opened, the tag will indicate that status and the software will be updated to track the date on which the product will expire, based on that opening. The software can then issue an alert for each product’s pending expiration date. The system displays not only what is expiring, but where it is being stored, and it can also alert users if a specific compound needs to be replenished.

For users who retrieve a chemical for research or testing purposes, the system provides a warning if that chemical has already expired, thereby preventing the compound’s use. That enables both inventory efficiency and safety, the company explains. “The whole thing—why the LANEXO system is so special—is not just the efficiency of always having stock,” Kuechenthal states, “but also managing inventory from a quality and safety perspective.” Users can read the tag on a cabinet to view what is being stored within, along with the expiration date or other relevant data about those items. “Our algorithms know the status of the cabinet and what is inside.”

When technicians use a compound (while conducting a test or research, for instance), they can once again read the tag in order to link the product with the work being carried out. The individual conducting the procedure would then be automatically linked to that item, and a record of that procedure and related products would be stored in the software.

MilliporeSigma designed and built the label to operate with any NFC-based Android devices. In the short term, Kuechenthal predicts, future the LANEXO system will also provide UHF RFID read functionality to enable tags to be read at a distance of several meters. In that way, laboratories could track product location without using a handheld reader. In such a scenario, dual frequency labels could be read via fixed RFID readers installed in portals or overhead or by mobile readers.

“For our first run,” Kuechenthal says, “we are offering the LANEXO system with a near-field focus,” to ensure that tags will be read at short range, and that the solution will be relatively low in cost to deploy. Laboratories will share the collected RFID read data with auditors or government agencies to prove compliance with safety regulations. “That means managing the data is being done more efficiently, as well as accurately.”

Users can purchase the LANEXO system which includes dual frequency NFC and UHF tags to apply to their products as well as software which they access with an annual payment. The solution is now commercially available, the company reports, and several laboratories throughout Europe and North America, which have asked to remain unnamed, are in the process of deploying the technology.