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The Research Lab of 2020

Fri, 12/04/2009 - 6:40am
Tim Studt



The current environment will be a factor in designing the lab of the future .
The current environment will be a factor in designing the lab of the future .
As the physical environment around us changes, so does our perception of the future. More than three years ago, in a “Lab of the Future” supplement for Advantage Business Media, more than half (55%) of the respondents to a reader survey indicated that the most important technical issue in future lab design was “right sizing” of the lab. Two years ago, a similar survey found that bench space—a derivative of size—was indicated as the most important issue (66%). In another survey performed in November 2009, cost had leapt to the lead (59%), while lab size (27%) had fallen below funding, instrumentation, staffing, regulations and technology change.

Clearly, the current criteria chosen for designing the lab of the future is very much a factor of the current environment, and the current recession likely influenced the survey responses. The results are also a factor of how fast and what technologies are changing.

“What we now think will take 20 to 30 years will happen in just 10 years,” says Ian Jardine, VP of Global R&D for Thermo Fisher Scientific, San Jose, Calif., in Laboratory Equipment’s current survey. “Most instrument and equipment changes over the next 10 years will be influenced by advances in electronics, computers and new materials.”

Other respondents agree: “The capability of software will expand exponentially,” says Lucas Smith, a product manager of separation science at LECO, St. Joseph, Mich. “Initially, diagnostic capabilities and data analysis will improve, while we work to make the software smarter with respect to system operation. Production labs will also be further integrated into the processes they support.”

The analyses for this year’s review of the “Lab of the Future” are based on two separate surveys—one posed to research lab instrument and equipment suppliers and a similar survey submitted to the science- and engineering-based readers of Laboratory Equipment.

While many of the responses of these two groups follow similar trends in terms of the driving issues for future lab designs (i.e. automation and robotics, biosafety, and energy use), some responses have substantial variations due to the specific needs and focus of each group (i.e. computer focus, communication systems and environmental isolation).

Instrumentation issues

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Fig. 1 The chart shows the most important technical issues in labs over the next 10 years, according to a reader survey. Source: Laboratory Equipment. 
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The continuing influence of slowly recovering economies, globalization-influenced competition, and tighter sources of research funds will drive how much money is spent on research labs in the future, which in turn will influence how they’re designed and the instruments and equipment that are put into them.

According to both surveys, advances in instrumentation and equipment technologies will likely be developed concurrently with new automation and robotic implementations. Researchers indicated that, following cost reductions, the most important changes in their labs over the next decade include greater instrument capabilities, more responsibilities, and more automated operations.

“The degree of automation and communication between devices will be a significant change,” says Jeff Chapman, director of Beckman Coulter’s Discovery Solutions Center, Brea, Calif. These changes will involve continued miniaturization, accelerated analysis times and simplified operation.

According to Greg LeBlanc, CEM’s new business development manager, Matthews, N.C. “Streamlining lab functions into an overall process instead of separate, standalone instruments” will be a significant change from how research is currently performed.

To grow their companies’ businesses, researchers expect to stand behind their current needs and desires in that the biggest improvements that they’ll make to their labs over the next decade will be to purchase new instruments (54% of the respondents), implement new technologies (52%), and upgrade their existing labs (51%). Subsequent improvements to their research operations, such as forming partnerships (30%), increased staffing (25%), or building new labs (10%), are considerably below these top three in terms of overall responses and, hence, of lesser importance.

According to the people actually developing and marketing instruments and equipment, most improvements during the next decade will come from accuracy (56% of the equipment-supplier respondents), flexibility (56%), data processing and ease of use (50% each), and reliability and speed (44% each).
“We will continue advancing science by faster, more powerful and easier instruments that provide scientific data more efficiently,” says Haydar Kutsu, marketing manager at Bruker, Billerica, Mass. “Our approach is to provide better instruments for the scientists, their laboratories, and the environment. We’ve recently introduced small-foot-print spectrometers that save bench space, refrigerated magnets that don’t require any maintenance, and ultra-high-resolution systems that use only a fraction of normal solvents.”

Developers in other technology arenas are following similar paths. “Over the next 10 years, instruments will favor smaller footprints and miniaturization of assay formats,” says Michael Schwartz, a program director at Fluxion Biosciences, South San Francisco, Calif. “Key technologies for high-throughput screening (HTS), which have historically been concentrated in core labs, will make their way onto the individual researcher’s bench top. Advances in microfluidics and fluidic interfacing will help pave the way for a number of cell-based applications to be run in a high-throughput, low-consumption format with less overhead and personnel required.”

The evolution of smaller and better instrumentation and equipment that has been seen over the past decade will continue. “Miniaturization and standardization are significant changes that will be seen in the research lab over the next 10 years,” says Mike Vagell, an application specialist at Sartorius Stedim North America in Bohemia, N.Y. “As a result of our formal continuous improvement programs, our products are going to better meet the evolving needs of our customers.”

While new technologies will be developed for these instruments, some of the advances can and will take a more evolutionary route, in this case in terms of software drivers. “The key to satisfying the market will be in developing intuitive user interfaces for completing complex operations,” says Jason March, director of marketing at Hamilton Co., Reno, Nev. “Given the abundance of handheld smart devices in our personal lives, it’s a natural progression to see similar interfaces work their way into products made for the research industry. Customers expect to have an intuitive user interface that can be understood without extensive reading of the manual.”

Building on the simplified and automated theme mentioned earlier, “Use of specialized analysis kits that provide complete solutions will continue to grow,” says Michael McGinley, bioseparations manager at Phenomenex, Torrance, Calif. “Black box solutions will minimize the amount of method development needed by researchers to get a specified result. Instrumentation will continue to get cheaper, smaller and more powerful. Distinctions between instruments like HPLC and UHPLC will blur, as all instruments become high pressure capable. Mass spectrometers will also continue to displace ultraviolet detectors due to their reduced cost and greater information content.”

Again, other instrument and equipment suppliers are following this same route for their instrument designs. “The movement toward canned integrations and/or application-specific solutions will be a significant change over the next 10 years,” says Matthew Hamilton, VP of Hamilton Storage Technologies in Hopkinton, Mass. “The most significant change our products will feature is a complete redundancy in the event of a refrigeration failure. Zero system downtime with complete trust in sample integrity is our design goal.”

“We also see significant changes over the next 10 years in a focus on wireless instruments, LIMS networking and energy conservation,” says Mason Marsh, a product manager at LECO. “Overcoming the hurdle to adopt these new technologies and implement the overall design will be a significant change in research labs.”

Sustainable development

While cost and energy efficiency may be important to their customers, many suppliers give these equipment changes a lower priority (25% each) than their design strategies. That, of course, does not mean that cost is being ignored.

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Fig. 2 Readers predict changes that will occur in their labs over the next 10 years.Click to enlarge
Cost reduction is one of the biggest goals and changes in the fume hood area, where energy costs are the largest of any other component in the research lab. “The drive towards going green and energy efficiency will have a significant change in overall lab design and function,” says Kevin McGouch, VP/GM of AirClean Systems, Raleigh, N.C.

“Sustainability, energy use (green usage) and using less to do more will be the most significant changes in overall lab design and function over the next 10 years,” says John Peters, assistant marketing director at NuAire in Plymouth, Minn.

Adam Keithley, Labconco’s marketing manager in Kansas City, Mo., also agrees that “further energy efficiency improvements will be seen in this area.”

However, changes seen within the next decade and the actual technological challenges confronting researchers on these changes appear to be two different items, according to Laboratory Equipment’s surveys. While researcher respondents (59%) see overall costs in the lab as the largest challenge, sustainable operation isn’t seen as that big of a challenge (14%) and is the second lowest of the 16 choices considered—computational challenges is the lowest, selected by only 9% of the respondents. Similarly, actual energy use is also not considered that big of a challenge (16%).

Many of the technologies for implementing sustainable development changes—and by default, fume hood improvements—appear to be already mostly developed, hence the lower rating for technical challenges in this area.
Functional changes

Some of the changes seen in research labs over the next 10 years will result from overall changes in the functional character of research. “We feel there’s going to be a significant move from chemistry-based sample cleanup techniques in the bioanalytical area to biochemical (affinity)-base cleanup techniques for higher selectivity,” says Associate Director Rohan Thakur, Specialized Mass Spectrometry, Taylor Technology, Princeton, N.J. “We specialize in the analysis of biomarkers to improve the effectiveness of drug development—this includes targeted and non-targeted biochemical profiling, as well as protein profiling.

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Fig. 3 Readers say how they will improve their labs within the next 10 years.
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“The ability to work with protein, peptide and siRNA-based new chemical entities will also require staffing with biochemistry and biology skills rather than analytical chemistry backgrounds, as well as workflows that can handle these samples. While the basic principles won’t change significantly, how you develop the answer will.”

In other associated areas, functional changes will also make an impact. “Fit for purpose analysis instruments using microarrays and microfluidics will displace large lab deck robots, further leading to less specialization needed for instrument laboratory design,” says Phenomenex’s McGinley. “From a top-down perspective, lab flexibility will be needed to handle common reorganizations and retasking of research resources. Such requirements will lead to more generic laboratory design in large pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical and contract research organizations.”

Green technologies are also not immune to seeing significant changes. “Even with the push for green technology, we’re seeing the market move away from reusable systems,” says Hamilton’s Jason March. “Disposable tips, pre-defined kits, cartridges and even disposable bioreactors will increase. Labs can reduce costs, eliminate carry over and achieve more consistent results with a disposable product that already has been validated for use by the manufacturer. By outsourcing the task of prepping equipment, the lab can focus on value-added tasks within their core competency.”

The overall character of research work is also subject to changes over the next 10 years. A number of external studies have indicated a declining amount of time being spent in the research lab in the future. Laboratory Equipment’s most recent surveys, however, do not see this occurring. According to the researcher survey, about 27% of the respondents expect to increase their time in the lab while 32% will decrease their time, and 41% expect to see no change—from a statistical standpoint, this is mostly a wash. Time spent in meetings by researchers, however, is expected to increase (42% increase vs. 15% decrease), along with time in the office (48% increase vs. 10% decrease). Therefore, by default, the time spent in the lab might see an actual decrease by fact of the increased time spent in the office and in meetings.

“In 10 years, most experiments will be run from the office over the Web, and the lab will be essentially a ‘clean room,’” says Thermo’s Ian Jardine. All in all, theses are some interesting scenarios to consider for the “Lab of the Future.”•

For additional information, visit: AirClean Systems, www.aircleansystems.com; Beckman Coulter, Inc., www.beckman.com; Bruker, www.bruker.com; CEM Corp., www.cem.com; Fluxion Biosciences, www.fluxionbio.com; Hamilton Co., www.hamiltoncompany.com; Hamilton Storage Technologies, www.hamilton-storage.com; Labconco, www.labconco.com; LECO Corp., www.leco.com; NuAire Inc., www.nuaire.com; Phenomenex, www.phenomenex.com; Sartorius Stedim North America, www.sartorius.com; Taylor Technology, www.taytech.com; Thermo Fisher Scientific, www.thermofisher.com

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