Achema Pulse with Laboratory Trends When Will the Future Begin?
Research into digital solutions for laboratories has been going on for more than a decade, and several initiatives have now developed market-ready application examples. Following the example of similar developments in production, discussion of automation standards in the lab has also gained momentum. Is the industry now on the verge of a breakthrough?
Laboratory-of-the-future is still under construction” — this website from 2010 can be found in a Google search. Fortunately, the situation is not that bleak. For several years now, many practical examples have been presented of what a modern, flexible and digitalized laboratory can look like. However, labs still seem to lag behind production, which is already making the move from digital plant to digital site and supply chain. Why is that?
Labs Have a Constantly Changing Work Environment
Questions that need to be answered are constantly changing — especially in research laboratories. Many of them are so new that the solutions for them are also developed individually. Standard procedures were rare in the past, and standard environments are therefore also rare. The number of instruments in most laboratories has grown over time mostly because acute specific problems had to be solved.
Now, data volumes are getting larger, modeling and simulation tools are being integrated, and high-throughput techniques are becoming more common. In addition, there is an effort to plan processes in an integrated manner: Anyone designing a biotech process — from strain development onwards — with a view to industrial scale-up needs not only data permeability across all scales but also the combination of a wide variety of perspectives.
Towards Common Interfaces and Data Formats
This requires uniform standards and interfaces. In production, this development is already making significant progress, but in the laboratory it is still in its infancy. However, common data formats and interfaces are a prerequisite for delivering on the promise of an end-to-end digital and ‘smart’ laboratory. Several initiatives are therefore working intensively to close this gap. At least with regard to data formats, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, as Stefan Hoppe of the OPC Foundation explained at the Achema Pulse media preview.
However, when it comes to interfaces and communication between devices, the industry is still pretty much at the beginning. Expert Matthias Arnold of Spectaris sees one of the main reasons for this in the heterogeneity of the applications. It starts with the landscape of providers: Many small companies are active in the laboratory market with a wide variety of solutions that often focus on very specific topics. This makes it easy to lose sight of issues such as comprehensive data handling and the associated questions of data security.
The key to success lies in comprehensive collaboration that has to cross boundaries between device standards and cloud standards. For this, according to Hoppe, standardized information must be able to be transported across different information chains and protocols. This will only work if manufacturers are willing to think beyond their own perspective and expertise and also consider broad generic approaches. And this should be done worldwide, if possible, because today not only do large companies access a global network of research locations, but universities and research institutions also frequently operate in the context of international partnerships. It is encouraging that the OPC Foundation’s open standards are being adopted as national standards in leading countries such as China and Singapore.
The advantages of a digital laboratory are obvious: big data and artificial intelligence can be used, automatic documentation helps to eliminate sources of error, and everything together makes processes more efficient. At the same time, however, the necessary flexibility must be maintained. The most obvious aspect of this is that the entire lab literally adapts to the circumstances — away from the clunky and permanently installed lab table, and towards modular furniture concepts that can be moved around and combined as needed.
Achema Pulse: From OPC UA to Coronavirus Tests
In the meantime, there are various application examples where manufacturers and users have joined forces to create at least partially networked laboratories. Some of these were presented live at Achema Pulse. The Flowlab example shows how the OPC UA standard can be used in a contract laboratory. In a seamless laboratory information and management system (LIMS), devices from different manufacturers are integrated and can be flexibly combined depending on the task at hand. This allows samples to be accepted, analyzed and further processed as necessary until the final report is produced.
Particularly when a large number of samples have to be analyzed, the highest possible degree of automation is important; coronavirus tests are a prime example of this. The Elisa-connect application example shows how they can be accelerated while at the same time relieving scarce personnel as much as possible. To analyze Sars-Cov2 antibodies correctly, specialists previously had to undergo intensive training. Today, technicians can learn to operate the assistance system in just one hour. The test kit is guided through the procedure by a QR code and the workflow runs fully automatically. Here, too, components from various manufacturers are integrated.
The ‘laboratory supply chain’ can be envisioned even further. The ‘intelligent laboratory cabinet’ with a connected scale keeps a record of consumables from glassware to chemicals and indicates in advance when it is time to reorder. This example was also presented at Achema Pulse. Suppliers such as Merck have recognized the signs of the times and are already offering their own solutions to their customers, which, among other things, facilitate inventory management in the laboratory.
So we can be sure that the laboratory of the future is already making its presence felt in the present. And even though it may still be ‘under construction’ in parts, the topping-out ceremony has already been celebrated.