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Industry Insights Can We Develop the Lab of the Future?

From Ahlam Rais*

What's all the buzz around futuristic labs or Labs of the Future?  // The adoption of next-gen technologies in order to come up with pioneering solutions in a highly-efficient environment is one of the central features of the Lab of the Future but is its development practical or a mere fantasy? Read on to find out…

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A digital lab with automated and integrated solutions ensures optimized laboratory operations, a scenario which industry players are keen to explore to stay competitive in the global market.
A digital lab with automated and integrated solutions ensures optimized laboratory operations, a scenario which industry players are keen to explore to stay competitive in the global market.
(Source: BillionPhotos.com - stock.adobe.com)

Numerous robots working in collaboration with each other, huge touch screens positioned across the walls with analytical data displayed on them, and integrated technologies in a highly automated as well as remotely accessible lab, this is how one imagines the Lab of the Future to be but is it possible to develop one and if yes, how efficient will it be? To answer this, we take you around some of the world’s most revolutionary laboratories that are already making news for their hi-tech and innovative processes.

Accelerating key drug discovery process in automated lab

In the pharmaceutical industry, Eli Lilly and Company in partnership with Strateos, a SaaS-based biotechnology company that provides robotic solutions for biology labs, has recently developed what it calls a futuristic lab i.e. a remote access laboratory in San Diego, USA for accelerating drug discovery. The 11,500-square-foot lab is equipped with more than 100 instruments, 23 robotic modules which are connected with a giant automated track and offers a storage of 5 million plus compounds. Strateos’ Robotic Cloud Lab platform operates the lab and assists scientists to remotely control their experiments via a web-based interface.

Keith Burton, Senior Director of Discovery Chemistry and Research Technologies at Lilly
Keith Burton, Senior Director of Discovery Chemistry and Research Technologies at Lilly
(Source: Eli Lilly and Company)

Keith Burton, Senior Director of Discovery Chemistry and Research Technologies at Lilly says, “The driver for developing this lab is to accelerate a key drug discovery process known as the design-make-test-analyze cycle (DMTA). Compounds are designed, synthesized, tested and analyzed to answer a specific hypothesis. Findings from one cycle are fed into the next iterative cycle to progress the project. The faster these cycles can be completed the sooner a project outcome will be achieved and the faster we can make medicines that make life better for people around the world.”

The lab is equipped with 23 robotic modules which are connected with a giant automated track and offers a storage of 5 million plus compounds.
The lab is equipped with 23 robotic modules which are connected with a giant automated track and offers a storage of 5 million plus compounds.
(Source: Strateos)

The lab accelerates the DMTA cycle by integrating automated synthesis with high throughput biological assays in one seamless process. The remote-controlled automated cloud lab enables scientists to design molecules leveraging human and machine learning, data driven design principles, and easily access data to analyze results.

“The most revolutionary innovation of this lab is the integration of all of these state-of-the-art technologies in an automated, remotely accessible lab. Combined with the ability to run multiple tests simultaneously, the result is in an exponential improvement in efficiency that significantly reduces the DMTA cycle time,” explains Burton.

Source of the video: Eli Lilly and Company. Used with permission

Novel formulations with AI

The chemical company Dow is known for developing new catalysts, polymers, and formulations across its focus markets and industries via high-throughput research. The US-based company is currently investing heavily in the Lab of the Future. Nathan Wilmot, R&D Director, Dow believes that this concept involves the integration of the whole innovation process from research to designing and running experiments to data analysis and development of insight.

Nathan Wilmot, R&D Director, Dow
Nathan Wilmot, R&D Director, Dow
(Source: Dow)

“Our initial focus is on shoring up our data foundation to treat the data that our researchers collect every day as a long-term asset that has inherent value, rather than simply a commodity to solve the problem of the day,” adds Nathan Wilmot, “We are also engaging with more advanced capabilities – such as analytics and data visualization, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, advanced computing, virtual and augmented reality – to understand how each of these can be valuable for us now and in the future. The need to invest in the Lab of the Future is critical and no longer optional.”

Dow’s Intelligence platform combines AI with the company’s deep materials science expertise to shorten the time needed to develop novel polyurethane formulations, allowing it to deliver solutions more quickly to its customers.
Dow’s Intelligence platform combines AI with the company’s deep materials science expertise to shorten the time needed to develop novel polyurethane formulations, allowing it to deliver solutions more quickly to its customers.
(Source: Dow)

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Dow’s Polyurethane Predictive Intelligence platform combines AI with the company’s deep materials science expertise to shorten the time needed to develop novel polyurethane formulations, allowing it to deliver solutions more quickly to its customers. “The use of these new technologies allows our R&D teams to reduce the number of experiments needed to find ‘the right’ solution for a problem, thus, helping our teams to provide service (i.e. innovation) at a faster rate than ever before. And, as we continue building our data foundation through both experimental data and experience with models and algorithms, the speed of obtaining answers will get increasingly shorter for us further increasing that important efficiency,” shares Wilmot.

In the future, Dow aims to completely automate its lab workflows in order to free up its researchers so that they can spend their valuable time on ideation, hypothesis generation, and analysis. The firm intends to use advanced automation and robotics, integration of hardware with machine learning models and AI tool, and the use of advanced computing technologies that can return more accurate solutions to quantum chemistry challenges faster than ever before.

Real-time simulation of vaccine manufacturing process

In line with futuristic laboratories, the pharma major Glaxosmithkline (GSK) has adopted the ‘Digital Twin’ technology to develop and innovate vaccines. This means that a real-time simulation of the entire vaccine manufacturing process was built to speed up the production process. Siemens and Atos were the brains behind this digital transformation and this technology was initially used for focusing on the production of particles of a vaccine adjuvant but now it’s being used for development and also has the potential to be used for transforming the process of vaccine R&D further upstream. The advantages: It can quickly produce data needed to confirm theories as well as provide an insight into real experiments by suggesting fewer materials.

Significant features of futuristic labs

Digital transformation – A digital lab with automated and integrated solutions ensures optimized laboratory operations, a scenario which industry players are keen to explore to stay competitive in the global market. The massive data generated at a lab is analyzed in order to undertake the best decisions for optimizing complete workflows but this is not all. Digitalization also brings in artificial intelligence which not only examines the data but also offers effective and productive suggestions to enhance lab operations overall.

Smart lab solutions – The Lab of the Future will be dominated by robots that will perform repetitive tasks with high accuracy, thus reducing human error in experiments. Intelligent laboratory solutions such as sensor and control technologies, augmented reality wearables, the cloud, and the laboratory information management system (LIMS) software, which assists in the planning, execution and documentation of work processes will also be used in futuristic labs, hence ensuring greater efficiency and optimizing processes at the lab.

The Lab of the Future is currently under progress but with multiple industry players exploring the concept, it may not take us long to develop an ideal futuristic lab.

* The author is a freelance editor at PROCESS Worldwide. Contact: ahlam.rais@vogel.com

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