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By Mark D. Uehling

October 15, 2002 | Out of the blue, a Beckman Coulter repair technician appeared at Baptist Medical Center in Jacksonville, Fla., to work on an instrument that appeared to be working fine. “The guy showed up and said, ‘Let me work on this machine,’ “ says Mike Napier, medical marketing manager for Axeda Systems. The hospital was puzzled.

Axeda Systems, it turns out, has a specialty in networking laboratory devices. The company had hooked the Beckman instrument to the hospital’s network, which allowed Beckman Coulter to keep an eye on the device after the sale was made. Explains Napier: “There was a component that was about to fail. The technician took the machine down for a few minutes and fixed it, as opposed to the machine shutting down all of a sudden and total panic ensues.”

Networking lab instruments is in its infancy, even in an era when Coke machines and clothes driers can be controlled via the Web. To be fair, sophisticated scientific equipment has had software and communications ports for a while. But even with a phone line dedicated to each instrument, the users of lab equipment have never fully exploited built-in capabilities for preventive maintenance or the proactive resupply of key chemicals.

“People are set up to fix things when they’re broken,” notes Allan Trochman, senior staff software development engineer at Beckman Coulter. “We’re very interested in preventing problems. It takes a different attitude.” The company hopes that Axeda will help it provide better service, keeping existing customers and luring new ones.

Another manufacturer of lab equipment has a similar competitive interest in the technology. “To differentiate ourselves,” says Dotti Bernstein, a strategic consultant at Diagnostics Products Company (DPC), a maker of immunoassay analyzers, “service is the way to go. We offer service that is going to allow you to walk away from your instrument, and we will help you manage your laboratory.”

DPC chose Questra, Bernstein says, after “they gave us a live demonstration on our instrument to see how we could get a phone call saying ‘I’m broken, come fix me’ without anyone doing anything. People literally fell off their chairs.” The company’s software relies on BEA Systems WebLogic and Java. When in trouble, DPC instruments automatically use pagers, cell phones and PDAs to get in touch with technicians. That can jumpstart a technician’s travel to a broken machine, even if it means rousting her out of bed at 3:00 a.m.

ABI Does DRM

Companies like Axeda and Questra have taken to calling the linkage of instruments to manufacturers via the Internet “device relationship management” (DRM). Other companies have their own terms: Forrester Research calls tight online coordination between companies the “X Internet.” But the basic idea is the same: link vendors to their machines via TCP/IP. It’s unfolding in several industries.

In the life sciences, DRM has the potential to address both a severe labor shortage in labs -- with medical technicians increasingly hard to hire -- and general productivity concerns about instruments. The latest company to jump on the DRM bandwagon is behemoth Applied Biosystems Inc., which will use the Axeda technology to network its new Prism 3730 DNA sequencers.

What’s driving DRM? The need for more scientific information. “With automation and high throughput, you end up with people trying to run the instruments 24/7 because the emphasis is on getting the results,” says George Chung, director of industry marketing at Questra. “That’s a change in doing business for a fair number of these labs. We’re seeing usage that is three or four times what the manufacturers used to think of as normal.”

Some laboratory instrument makers are also concerned about compliance with federal regulations, among them the FDA’s 21 CFR Part 11. “It’s amazing how many people don’t have any password or any sort of authentication or authorization whatsoever,” says Chung of Questra. “You can run an experiment, dial into the equipment, and see all the confidential information. That is absolutely not compliant with HIPAA,” the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Insecure Instruments?

DRM software clearly has a delicate task, akin to that of a eunuch guarding royal maidens. The treasure must remain close at hand but untouched. A networked instrument can tell its manufacturer: “I need a new vacuum pump.” An instrument  must not tell its manufacturer: “Steve Barnes has leukemia.” DRM companies say they’ve tackled that security challenge, using the same SSL standards used in online credit card transactions, and managed to segregate the personal medical data coming off instruments from the mundane operational details like an unusually variable temperature.

Indeed, DRM companies and instrument makers alike say human operators of these machines can’t possibly memorize the error codes and quirks of each device. By default, the companies that build instruments are being forced to watch over them. That can be via the Internet, using DRM, or in person. Neither approach is cheap. A standard DRM package might cost in the mid six-figures. A single on-site visit from a technician might cost $1,500. Some 20-40% of such calls encounter no real problem.

To reduce unnecessary service calls, Questra and Axeda say they can safely breach a customer’s firewall and gather data directly off any instrument. That’s by design. DRM companies say hospital and pharmaceutical IT departments are as overworked as the labs. So in Axeda’s case, for example, the instrument itself uses XML and HTTP to reach _out_ to a secure Axeda server, a process risking no personal data and requiring almost no involvement from the organization’s IT professionals.

Even so, the theoretical risks of DRM are making some customers pause. At Varian Medical Systems, which is building Axeda’s version of DRM into its devices, the process is going well. Mostly. “Some facilities are nervous about installing such a unit and some places have actually refused to have it installed,” notes Keith LaPlain, Varian’s marketing manager for two soon-to-be networked devices. Such doubts may only be put to rest gradually, as the IT professionals and scientists see the payoff to DRM.

Sidebar: Networking Those Pesky Bioreactors

At some labs, the most urgent problem is what to do about instruments that can’t be stitched into a network. WireWorksWest, of San Francisco, has a solution. Its software allows the manual input of off-network instruments that provide data crucial to the optimal performance of equipment that is connected.

 “This allows the company to not have multiple sets of data for the same experiment,” says WireWorks president Andrew Johnson. “They’ve got a single source that holds everything they need.”

WireWorksWest has developed a niche within the DRM niche: networking bioreactors. These high-tech kettles grow bacteria at companies like Genentech and Amgen, which use WireWorks software to monitor and control the production of genetically engineered bacteria that contain new drugs.

At those companies, Johnson says, scientists often find themselves in charge of what amount to small biological factories. His software allows scientists to run their assembly lines from their offices, without donning space suits or, more important, giving up their favorite computers.

“There have been times we provided Macintoshes to labs and they were noted [on invoices] as ‘fermentation monitoring equipment’ because corporate IT said there would be no support for Macintoshes,” Johnson says. “It was equipment to monitor fermentation that happened to be a Macintosh.”

 





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