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Achema Pulse: Standards and Initiatives Bringing Your Lab up to Speed: No Digitalization without Standardization

Editor: Alexander Stark

The Digital Transformation of the Laboratory comes with device connectivity. As currently most laboratory devices communicate over a proprietary interface, this requires knowing the exact configuration of the counterpart device. The intrinsic wish for a plug and play communication to enable data transfer and control functions is hardly achievable and the need for a standardized communication interface arises.

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(Source: Public Domain / Pixabay )

Frankfurt/Germany — Achema Pulse hosted the panel discussion “Standards in the World of Lab” to introduce Namur’s Module Type Packages (MTP), OPC UA LADS — the Laboratory Agnostic Device Standard based on OPC UA and Sila 2 by Standardization in Laboratory Automation. The panelists provided an overview how to start with standardized device-to-device communication both from the device vendor perspective and from a user standpoint.

The participants in the session included:

  • Dr. Matthias Arnold (AixEngineers) — He spoke on behalf of OPC UA LADS.
  • M.Sc. Henry Bloch, CEO and Co-Founder of Semodia — He talked about MTP.
  • Dr. Patrick Courtney of the Sila Consortium

There is a growing demand for standardization in lab device communication, as proprietary interfaces make integration difficult and slow down digitalization efforts. Therefore, several global initiatives are striving to establish standards for data transfer and control functions in the lab. Apart from the three initiatives represented in the discussion, there are numerous smaller ones.

Henry Bloch explained that there are different approaches to implement standards in the lab. “Standards are relatively new in the lab environment, but in the production environment they are already well established,” Bloch said.

According to Dr. Courtney, a major obstacle for standards in the lab is, the lack of awareness of this topic. “I think the whole subject of standards is poorly understood. It’s not really taught at Universities, we talk about standards of all kinds of different types.”

Matthias Arnold introduced an other important aspect into the discussion: “Heterogeneity is one of the big challenges in the lab. It is the main difference to the processing industry. There, huge vendors and large customer companies drove standardization in the past.” According to Arnold, heterogeneity is also the reason why there are so many initiatives. These initiatives had their roots in different sectors, like the processing industry or automation.” Today’s laboratory infrastructures are made up of many highly specialised devices from a wide range of manufacturers. Different interfaces and data formats make it difficult to network these devices with each other and to integrate them into existing IT infrastructures. However, this is the most important prerequisite for end-to-end digitalization and efficient automation.

How does standardization facilitate work in the lab?

“The most important benefit of standardization concerns costs of integration,” Arnold continued. The lack of standardization was hindering the utilization of data, e.g. AI, data driven applications. But standardization was the key for digital transformation in the lab. While Courtney agreed, he added that costs also include savings. Standardization would ensure that data are not lost. “There are the costs of re-running experiments, of loosing data, and of less flexibility. Cost itself has a very broad sense of meaning.” Additionally, to incorporate new technologies in the lab, it was necessary to have standards. This means that standardization offers the flexibility needed to integrate these new technologies. Arnold: “The diversity of devices and the resulting complexity requires overall standards.” However, to ensure that the investment pays off, these “platforms have to work for a certain period of time and be able to evolve with the development of new technologies. So they need to offer both stability and flexibility”, Arnold said.

Apart from device vendors, key players in standardization efforts include academia, who ultimately use the equipment. Bloch emphasized that researchers and labs should be included in the development of new standards. This would ensure that only standards that are tried and tested are launched on the market. “We all want to have great applications. That’s why open standards are crucial. Technologies such as AI and VR need data, and in order to make them work we need access to the data. Therefore, it is important to establish communication standards. Ultimately, this simplifies auditing, reporting and analysis,” Bloch explained.

New and innovative technologies are constantly developed and labs would also like to benefit from the use of the latest technologies. Many of these interesting solutions come from start-ups. That is why Dr. Courtney also highlighted the need to interact with these innovators: “Start-ups are free to try out new ideas and there are very interesting examples for collaborations. The science world is fantastic, because people are not afraid to talk to one another. This is how new partnerships are developed.”

Labs that want to get started with standardization, can choose from these and other global initiatives. Additionally, there are different companies, consultants and associations and working groups to support labs on the way. Bloch, Courtney and Arnold pointed out that the guidelines for the implementation of communication standards in the lab are available to everyone and the speakers encouraged membership in one of the non-profit and open groups.