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Achema Pulse: Enabling Technologies What Does the Lab of the Future Look Like?

From Alexander Stark

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Do scientists and researcherx still need to be physically present in the lab of the future? Will the workbenches still be rectangular and will cobots do all the annoying routine tasks? The panel discussion “Enabling Technologies for the Laboratory of the Future” at Achema Pulse highlighted the promising advantages of cutting edge technology in the laboratory ecosystem. LAB worldwide summarizes this insightful discussion.

(Source: Public Domain / Pixabay)

Frankfurt/ Germany — While consumer electronics always seem far ahead with cool new technology, laboratories seem to be very traditional and slow in adopting them. In the opinion of Hauke Heller, System Engineer at bAhead, this is mainly due to two reasons: money and time. He argues that it is much simpler to buy a new smartphone than it is to buy new lab equipment. Labs had to plan the purchase, organize its installation, and ensure that the staff is able to operate the new systems. However, for Przemyslaw Budnicki, CEO of Holo4Labs, the main reason for the tentative implementation is the risk involved: “There are certifications to consider and a lot of obligations. The margin for error is huge. Therefore, labs have to be careful and only apply technologies that are thoroughly checked”. According to Budnicki, once new technologies are applied, the effects they have on the lab are also huge. Dr. Denis Özdemir, Head of Customer Success at Labtwin adds that it would also be difficult to standardize the work in the lab.

It's only now that we have reached a point where technology has become adaptive enough to really facilitate the work in the lab

Dr. Denis Özdemir

In recent years, cobots have become much more flexible and mixed reality can be used right when and where it is needed. Özdemir says that the technology has become mature enough to facilitate non-standardized processes in the lab now.

With regard to safety issues concerning cobots in the lab, Heller pointed out that the speed and force they can exert is limited, e.g. by TÜV regulations. After all, a cobot wouldn't need a lot of force to do work in a laboratory. For delicate work that includes for instance needles, the software has to be designed accordingly. Heller mentions the possibility of modules that can be adapted to the labs' needs. In this way, the cobot can do exactly what the user wants and this could be implemented very easily. While a cobot wouldn't do a better job then a human, it would help eliminate errors, Heller stated. “Everything I can do on my table, cobots can do as well. They can be tasked with certain work sequences, like picking something up, pipetting, and filling processes.”

How Will Lab Workers Interact with New Technologies?

A further solution for lab automation was presented by Budnicki, who believes that mixed reality can offer huge advantages in lab work. With mixed reality glasses, users can see everything that is going on around them. At the same time, the technology also recognizes equipment, can read QR codes on samples etc. The mixed reality glasses are connected to the database and show lab workers additional information in real time, e.g. the next step, preparation instructions and much more. Improvements in voice control technology made it possible to used mixed reality glasses and communicate with the systems by spoken commands.

Answering the question of why it has taken so long for these technologies to be implemented in the lab environment, Budnicki says that the quality of the hardware wasn't ready. Now this seems to have changed and there is a whole new range of technologies for lab applications available. According to Budnicki, Microsoft's Hololens 2 has improved this technology in a way that makes it suitable for laboratories. Examples of how mixed reality offers real added value are more convenient documentation and better preparation for audits.

Digital solutions are increasingly defining the way modern labs work. However, there is still a lot of paper work involved. Labtiwn wants to change that with their lab assistant. As Denis Özdemir explains, their solution will help lab workers directly capture data in a digital way without having to write anything down on paper anymore. Just like mentioned in the previous presentations about cobots and mixed reality, Özdemir emphasized the improvement in speech recognition software in recent years. However, their are certain issues with scientific and special vocabulary. This is where Labtwin wants to make a difference: The company is training their system specifically for lab vocabulary to ensure the highest possible accuracy in speech recognition. By interacting with the system, users can also constantly improve its accuracy.

All of this three disruptive technologies have in common that they require human beings to accept and apply them. In order to do that, Budnicki mentioned that change management was the key. So the lab of the future will not happen over night, but step by step. But in some aspects it has already become a reality.

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