13. February 2023 By Juan Carlos Peñafiel Suárez
A day in the laboratory of the future
The way laboratories are structured has barely changed for decades, and the traditional laboratory as we know it today has been around since about 1850. Although software and hardware have continued to evolve, these changes have not been big enough to produce a breakthrough in how labs are structured.
But nowadays, it could be said that this breakthrough has already occurred, as the development of software and hardware has led to scientists no longer being able to process the data obtained in the laboratory without innovative tools. This is why the laboratory of the future will likely continue to be very different from what we know today. This blog post will cover several aspects of this laboratory.
How far off is the future?
Before talking about the laboratory of the future in general terms, people should ask themselves the following questions: How far off is the future? Is the laboratory of the future still a hundred years away? Or is it maybe only five? The answer to this question should be important for every company, as preparing for this future is crucial for the company’s role in the market to come.
There are different types of laboratories, such as research laboratories, which produce innovations that later become products. Analytical laboratories, which are important for ongoing orders, constitute another type of laboratory. How these laboratories affect a company’s ‘health’ varies greatly in terms of time: a research laboratory will probably only be able to yield innovations after years of research. In contrast, the effectiveness of an analytical laboratory is vital for a company’s daily success. Even though the efficiency of these laboratories can be measured in different time frames, the race to design each type of laboratory as the ‘laboratory of the future’ has already begun.
Since work to redesign laboratories is already underway these days, it could be assumed that in ten years, they will be vastly different from the ones we have now. The introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) for daily use – such as ChatGPT – also suggests that using similar technologies in the laboratory will soon be possible and development will be accelerated as a result.
The laboratory of the future
How will the laboratory of the future look? To get a better idea of how such a laboratory works, we will accompany the fictitious scientist Alva as she works in the year 2033.
Quick, data-centric access to data and devices
Alva is able to monitor all the equipment in her lab from her mobile phone or computer and do so at any given time. At a moment’s notice, she can access all the data that belongs to her or the data her colleagues have shared with her. This data is not simply available as rough figures, but rather it is already structured so that Alva can read it quickly. The software that manages this data is incredibly well designed so that everyone is able to quickly and easily make sense of their data. The analysis also happens very quickly and does so with the help of software that scientists can promptly adapt as desired and needed.
Scientists make the most of their time
Alva and her colleagues are able to focus most of their time on exploratory work. The days when laboratory staff had to spend a large portion of their time searching for data and managing it are at an end. This data is stored in a central location and protected so that the scientists are highly confident in the system and do not have to worry about losing the data. One of Alva’s favourite tasks is handling data, which involves checking the results or using software to try to find other parameters that might be important. The organisational work has almost disappeared because, thanks to digitalisation and automation, the way the laboratory is structured already takes care of it.
A high degree of digitalisation and automation
There is hardly any manual work. Our scientist from the future only cares about designing processes, evaluating data, and configuring devices. The majority of processes are automated using laboratory robots. Human error has therefore all but disappeared, the levels of reproducibility and accuracy are very high, processes are safe and efficient and the high throughput makes it possible to generate data more quickly. This makes the laboratory where Alva works very important for the company. Companies that have not updated their laboratories in time will find it difficult to remain competitive. This means that the work Alva does in her laboratory will secure her company’s position as the leader in its market.
Alva and her employees are digital thinkers. In the laboratory of the future, everyone has the ability to work with the available technology. These new technologies require a new set of skills: design thinking, software development, working with databases, working proactively and efficiently and creativity, among others. Digital thinking does not necessarily mean being an expert in one of these areas, but rather it means having a good grasp on them and being able to understand and apply the basics. The most important thing is to build a team in which the member’s existing skills and ways of working complement one another.
The laboratory of the future is already being shaped today
Many institutes, companies and other organisations have already recognised the importance of digitalisation in the laboratory. That is why at present, there are already a wide range of technologies being used in the laboratory to make the laboratory of the future a reality.
Robots can be used to automate processes and reduce the workload placed on staff. Using robots entails several benefits that have already been mentioned.
Data management software
A large amount of data is generated in the laboratory on a daily basis. Not only the amount of data, but also the large number of file formats complicate data management. ELN (electronic laboratory notebook), LIMS (laboratory information management system), CDS (chromatography data system), LES (laboratory execution system) and SDMS (scientific data management system) are just a few examples of the data management software currently available on the market.
When it comes to collaboration, quick and clear communication is key. This is no different for laboratories. These days, collaborations take place between various laboratories spread throughout the world. It is becoming more and more important to use standards – not only within laboratories, but also outside of them, in order to be able to exchange data with other laboratories. This is why there are a number of organisations that are already working on such standards. Some of these organisations include:
The benefits of using such standards include things such as interoperability, quality, simple and cost-effective integration and compliance with regulations.
As I already mentioned, the laboratory staff’s new skills are essential. These days, companies are looking for specialists who already possess this expert knowledge. Another option is to train the existing specialists accordingly. It is becoming increasingly more important to train staff, as technology continues to develop at a rapid pace. The universities are unable to keep up, and there are not enough specialists on the labour market. In order to be able respond quickly, organisations will have to pay attention to identifying the specific knowledge and skills the market requires and train their staff accordingly.
Work on the laboratory of the future is already underway today. The use of robots, software for data management and standards as well as the constant change in which knowledge is in demand on the market are important building blocks for making the laboratory of the future a reality.
I described our scientist Alva’s daily work in a laboratory in the year 2033 as an example. But in the most modern companies, such a laboratory may already exist today, though it is not the standard yet. The term ‘laboratory of the future’ implies that the majority of laboratories will work and be structured the way I described in the example with Alva. Organisations have long recognised that the laboratory of the future is near at hand and that it is necessary for their laboratories to begin the process of becoming the laboratory the near future requires.
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