Home Grown

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted November 01, 2000
by Angela R. Garberwhen a myersville, md., gas

When a Myersville, MD., gas station allowed 10,000 gallons of leaded gasoline to seep out of deteriorating holding tanks and into the surrounding soil, Dr. Mary Miller's well water was contaminated. Before cleanup could begin the water needed to be tested, but she had a hard time cutting through the "necessary" red tape. Her husband suggested she take her Ph.D. in organic chemistry and do something about it.

She left her job at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1985 and Fredericktowne Labs Inc. was born, proving once again that the best inventions truly are born out of necessity. FTL -- a 15-employee environmental testing facility -- serves corporations, government agencies, schools, military installments, healthcare facilities, restaurants, and individuals who need to know what's in the ground they walk on, the air they breath, and the water they drink. And, not surprisingly, there is a lot of data analysis and reporting to be done every day.

In the beginning, Miller says, she kept track of customers and reports on the labs antiquated computer and a word processing program. As the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment gradually added more requirements to the testing and reporting process, Miller discovered that she needed a laboratory information management system (LIMS). This is a computer network that keeps track of all samples and tests in the lab, generates reports, and maintains a client database. After 11 years of just making do, she decided to plunk down the money and make the technological leap. The question was: Which system?

OFF THE SHELF VS. CUSTOM

The obvious answer seemed to be an established, off-the-shelf package. Miller got some recommendations and asked four vendors to come in and give her demonstrations. Three out of the four were DOS-based: The vendors told her that Windows wouldn't last. The fourth, while a more user-friendly Windows-based package, offered features she didn't need and excluded some that she did. She chose not to pay out the $50,000 to $100,000 for which these manufacturers were asking, and instead investigated custom applications.

Miller met with Larry Jarkey, owner of the one-man Comp Solutions Inc. in neighboring Middletown, Md. He created a custom Microsoft Access-based LIMS system that does absolutely everything she needs it to and not one function more.

The analysts at FTL had spent years running back and forth through the lab trying to find information in notebooks, binders, and file cabinets. To create client reports they would copy and paste new information into old reports -- a new address here, different testing data there. "The concern was always that you'd miss something," Miller says. What they needed was a tool to automate the paper work, help them be more efficient, and to give them better control of their business.

With the off-the-shelf packages, there was limited flexibility and customization, and Miller felt that she was being asked to apply her problem to someone else's solution. Working with Jarkey was the exact opposite. They sat down together and created a game plan. Best of all, Jarkey took the paperwork that they used -- and with which they were already comfortable -- and created the database and program around their methods and documentation.

"They had been running their business successfully for years on that documentation," he says. "There was no reason to change it."

Because the system is Microsoft Access-based, Miller and the other analysts can tweak the application, run queries, and create new reports on their own without having to drag Jarkey in. When they do need him, rather than spending hours on hold with technical support, he's right around the corner. And, the price tag came in significantly lower than that of the off-the-shelf systems: During the past six years, the system, upkeep, and hardware has cost her a total of about $24,000.

TOTAL CONTROL

Now when a call comes in to FTL, the intake coordinator takes the customer information, information about the job to be done, and the type of analysis requested. A work order is generated and the information is given to one of the collectors. The collector gathers samples from the site, brings them back to the lab, and logs the information.

Six years ago there would already be several sheets of paper flying around, but now it is all handled through the network. There are eight computers in the lab, all linked to each other and monitored by the server. When the collectors bring the samples back to FTL, they are logged in and testing information pops up in the appropriate lab on the appropriate analyst's monitor like a "to do" list.

As each analyst goes through her list of to dos, and signs off on the testing, an Access-based applet Jarkey created for the server is scanning the system (once every 15 minutes) to determine which tests are complete and which are still out. When a job is complete, the applet generates and prints the final analysis paper work and creates an invoice record at the same time. Miller can then review the paperwork, sign off on it, and ship it out to the client.

The system also helps Miller keep track of which tests are operating profitably. Not surprisingly, the highly sensitive equipment used to analyze the soil and water samples is expensive to maintain. Quick reports allow Miller to determine if the lab is running enough of certain tests to justify offering the service to its clients.

GOING IT ALONE

Many people go with an off-the-shelf software package because it comes with an implied authority and offers a sense of security that it either won't break down or that if it does there will be technical support at the ready to help. However, many businesses have found out the hard way that that sort of support is usually far from right around the corner.

Miller said she weighed the concern of what might happen if Jarkey one day up and moved to California, but in the end he reassured her that he would stand by his product and that he would make it so anyone could pick up where he left off.

"My philosophy is that the program is theirs," he says. "They have the source code, and I have a copy, so, in case there are any problems, we can recreate it. It's not copyrighted or anything so if I fall off the edge of the earth, someone else can come in and take it over and not worry about having to buy some sort of rights to it."

Jarkey also worked with Miller to create a safety net. He installed a RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) and helped FTL switch from a tape backup system to a rewritable CD-ROM backup. The CD-RW system not only helps FTL do quick daily backups of critical data and eases the process of retrieving data from backup files, but it is also helpful in storing copies of reports, some of which must be stored for as long as 10 years.

Miller says the service she has received from Jarkey is better than she could have dreamed. "All I have to do is pick up the phone." And when you consider the price differential between the custom package and the off-the-shelf LIMS systems, Miller says there was no contest. "I couldn't be more pleased," she says.

Getting Started

Choosing a custom software package was the best option for Fredericktowne Labs, but it was not a decision they made lightly. Before signing a contract with an independent developer, consider it carefully.

Many "custom packages" are not really custom. They have been created for one person and then modified slightly for each additional user. If you are going to spend $10,000 or more for a custom package, make sure that it is created specifically for you and with your specific operations in mind.

Make sure you have a clear idea of exactly what the custom package will cost and determine a probable maintenance schedule and associated costs.

Find out what happens to the custom software when for any reason your relationship with the developer ends. Who owns the source code, and who has a copy? Make sure you are comfortable with the arrangement, and get any agreements in writing.

Check references before making any final decisions.

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