Smart Labs: The New Wave Transforming Laboratories Globally
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In recent years, it has become evident that there is a correlation between the implementation of digital technologies and an increase in productivity and quality compliance in research and development. Automation is one innovation that continues to revolutionize the laboratory and alleviate the modern-day lab pressures on the scientist. It has been heralded as a key component in ensuring that research protocols are streamlined and that results are replicable and accurate. Automation’s ability to make machinery and equipment operate without human assistance is disruptive, and thus, innovators have taken the concept of automation and incorporated it with other innovations to partially automate experiments on a much smaller scale. The product of this is the ‘Smart Lab’: a solution that connects and automates existing laboratory equipment in an innovative, agile way.
Automation and how it can benefit the lab
The traditional use of automation in the laboratory was mainly for pharmaceutical assays. It helped with drug synthesis on a large scale and high-throughput analysis of materials. Automation was heralded as a way of reducing human involvement in tasks and thereby the time taken to complete tasks. However, over the years, advances in technology have led to a move to introduce automation into the laboratory for a different purpose – it’s not solely about reducing the time taken to conduct experiments anymore, but also about improving precision, compliance and the replicability of results, which all contribute to an increase in productivity in the laboratory.
There is still a perception that laboratory automation is just a large high-throughput system for synthesis and analysis activities. Yet, the process of digitization has naturally resulted in the definition of automation evolving to incorporate smaller, more agile technology that offers more nuanced approaches to automation in the form of ‘Smart Labs’. This refers to the support and partial automation of equipment and processes in the laboratory. Blending internet of things (IoT) technology and automation, ‘Smart Labs’ enable existing infrastructure such as devices, software systems, processes and databases to be networked with each other to make workflows, resource management and collaboration easier, safer and more efficient.
Different research specifications all require unique application of software solutions, for example, diagnostic and analytic laboratories tend to favor a laboratory information management system (LIMS), whilst industry and academic laboratories typically use an electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) for recording research. Using different solutions creates additional barriers for laboratories to overcome when integrating automation, as the device that is chosen must be able to interface with these other solutions.
By adopting smaller, more agile forms of automation that can be connected to all documentation software and working equipment, the laboratory environment can be united at a significantly smaller cost. Over the past few years, the demand for smaller, more efficient innovative solutions in the laboratory has grown alongside other technological advances. The laboratory execution system (LES), for example, is a form of laboratory automation that facilitates the connection of existing laboratory equipment available on either local server or cloud.
What can we expect from the laboratories of the future?
‘Smart Labs’ combine automation technologies with other forms of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, namely sensors and automated devices from pipettes to centrifuges. When used in conjunction with IoT technology, scientists can use automation solutions to control their existing laboratory infrastructure, combining software systems, devices and databases to coordinate workflows. As a result, researchers can monitor every aspect of an experiment from start to finish, consequently making resource management and team collaboration not only simpler but also more efficient and safe. With connected receptors that monitor temperature, movement and other environmental conditions constantly, a scientist will be able to conduct an experiment without actually being present in the laboratory. This, in turn, will allow greater flexibility and potentially yield a more accurate set of results, as experiments will be performed at the optimal time, rather than a time that fits into a scientist's busy schedule.
Automation has already revolutionized many sectors and has brought significant progression in science, particularly in pharmaceutical drug development. Yet, this concept can and should be taken further than its most basic form. Advances in technology and software are bringing about new ways to revolutionize research and development and improve experiment execution and documentation from inception to conclusion. The ‘Smart labs’ approach offers a flexible, agile way of conducting research and development and can be adapted to suit any form of scientific research facilitating greater connectivity in the laboratory with its unique approach to automation.
About the author: Phoebe Chubb is a digital marketer at Labforward