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Smart Solutions for Smart Minds What Will the Future of the Laboratory Look Like?

Author / Editor: Dr. Kathrin Rübberdt* / Dipl.-Medienwirt (FH) Matthias Back

The modern laboratory environment is shaped by the same trends that affect most areas of today’s life: Flexibility, digitalization, communication — combined with the never-changing requirements for a lab such as safety, robustness, and cleanliness. In our article you will read more about the changes in hardware and software over the years and what the future of the laboratory might look like.

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„The Curie laboratory, in which radium was discovered a short time ago, […] was a cross between a stable and a potato-cellar, and, if I had not seen the worktable with the chemical apparatus, I would have thought it a practical joke,” said catalysis pioneer Wilhelm Ostwald on seeing the Curie’s laboratory facilities around 1900.

For today’s strive for innovation, such an environment is inconceivable. Even the laboratories of 20 years ago with their fixed benches, the division between laboratory and computer room, with endless manual pipetting and paper-and-pen documentation, are deprecated. Where lab robots are performing high-throughput analyses, in vitro and in silico work are converging, and international cooperation means much more than a couple of e-mails a day, adequate R&D facilities are a prerequisite for success.

Modern Lab Furniture is Light, Lean and Modular

The modern laboratory environment is shaped by the same trends that affect most areas of today’s life: Flexibility, digitalization, communication — combined with the never-changing requirements for a lab such as safety, robustness, and cleanliness.

The differences compared to the lab of old start literally at the foundation: Modern laboratory buildings provide open spaces, bringing in silico and in vitro work close together, and offer facilities for cooperation and communication. In its current report “Lab of the future”, CBRE Workspace Solutions, a commercial real estate service firm, forecasts that the need for traditional lab space will fall by half until 2029, while the high-tech development in modeling, artificial intelligence, instrumentation, analysis and collaboration tools will lead to an increase in flex labs of 21 %. The layout of the lab depends, however, on the work performed: While for quality assurance testing or routine work, traditional labs may still be the solution of choice, open-concept and flex labs are more appropriate for free-thinking research.

But buildings and rooms can only be used flexibly if the furniture supports this. Compared to the robust laboratory bench of old that was literally carved in stone, modern lab furniture is light, lean and modular. Laboratory desks and benches can be adjusted in height and put to different uses from bureau to work bench. Service installations are not permanently fixed, but decoupled and can be moved depending on changing requirements. Lab furniture provider Waldner offers service modules in form of spines, suspended booms, columns, wings and ceilings fit for every conceivable laboratory layout. Hemling Laborbau has developed a modular concept with standardized measurements, consistent heights and no projecting ends so that the lab can be completely rebuilt according to need.

And the laboratory builders have to think further: A provider who is active in the global market has to prepare for diverse conditions. German supplier Wesemann, for example, developed a mobile chemical laboratory for BASF that can ensure a constant room climate in a surrounding temperature range from -25 to +30 °C.

Smart Surfaces Will Take Over Soon

The vision of the future lab takes the furniture another step ahead: Smart surfaces will not only be able to heat or stir — goodbye magnetic stirrer and heating plate — with the appropriate diameter, temperature and speed, they will communicate with the lab worker, providing information on experiments and results and documenting the different steps in the process.

The interaction between the lab worker and the lab will be enabled by virtual systems and augmented reality. Protective glasses with virtual reality features project information on experiments such as volumes or amounts of to be weighed, temperature, time etc. right in front of the experimenter’s eye. Integrated cameras and sound-recording systems coupled with voice recognition software record every single work step, significantly reducing the potential for mistakes and ensuring the complete and at any time accessible documentation of all work performed. Especially in analytical labs that have to adhere to strict standards, this can mean a tremendous improvement in efficiency and quality management. The virtual devices can also be used for communication: in a video conference, the expert on the other side of the globe can be shown the data from the glasses in order to comment or discuss the phenomena first-hand.

Digitalization in the lab is already far advanced. High-throughput methods and the ever more sophisticated analytical technologies are already now generating immense volumes of data — the term “big data” seems almost too weak for the amount of information handled in the modern lab; “giant” would probably be more adequate. Thus, modern LIMS have to be much more than data storage systems. They can be integrated with electronic laboratory journals as well as with order management systems, turning them into integrated Laboratory Management Systems that cover supply chain, functions, documentation and processes and can also be connected to big data analytical systems.

Another new technology has entered the lab on the quiet over recent years. While the discussion about the opportunities and limits of additive production is still going on, 3D printers have entered research laboratories especially in the life sciences. Scientists are not only printing away on tissues and biological structures; they also use 3D printers to develop and produce their own equipment from the reaction vessel to the mixer and other devices.

Cooperation is Key

But all visions of the smart lab, the movable modules and intelligent instruments depend on a common approach. Without standardized interfaces and data exchange formats, the ideas of flexibility and interaction will not become reality. Therefore, several initiatives have already been founded in order to advance the development of the laboratory of the future and, in particular, establish common standards for furniture and equipment suppliers as well as providers of software and analytical devices. In 2014, in the Federal state of Saarland, the non-profit society “Labor der Zukunft” has been founded. Centered on a technology initiative of the Fraunhofer IBMT, eleven companies and institutions such as MESSKO or THIEMT have joined forces to promote the standardization of future labs. The initiative also focusses on mobile lab solutions.

Nexygen stands for “The Next Generation Lab” and is a joint initiative of German laboratory equipment and services providers, including Köttermann, Sartorius, Memmert, 2mag and Hirschmann. They follow an interdisciplinary approach based on the holistic view of the analytical process from the preparation of samples right through to documentation and disposal of waste.

But no matter how smart the lab will get in the end — it will always be a tool and supporting system. If there had been a mechanical helper to process huge amounts of uranium ore, the Curies would certainly have welcomed it. They could have used the new-won freedom to explore what really matters in research: The creativity of the human mind.

* K. Rübberdt is Head of Communications, DECHEMA e.V.

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