The lab of the future is closer than some think, but a solid foundation must first be laid before sci-fi becomes reality.

What will the lab of the future look like?

Imagine. . .

Imagine near-field communication (NFC) technology that enables all devices in the lab to seamlessly communicate with one another—no paper or manual data re-entry required. Imagine motion sensors that allow lab personnel to record a sample weight or experimental observation with a simple gesture. Imagine augmented display glasses that instantly call up all the information a scientist needs about a device or material, at a glance.

Perhaps these examples sound like scenes from a science fiction movie. It’s true that more than a few lab managers and scientists reading this might laugh at the idea of motion control in organizations still struggling to digitize their paper notebooks. Or they assume they’ll be long retired by the time the use of augmented display is widespread. But here’s the reality: the technology to make all this possible exists today. So why aren’t labs taking advantage of it?

A number of industries, including manufacturing, retail, food and beverage and healthcare, have adopted technologies such as RFID, near IR, robotics, mobile tablets and other types of advances to automate processes and record keeping, manage inventory, enhance global collaboration and more. But despite widespread innovation in smart/connected/wearable/mobile technologies, organizations have been slow to incorporate their use in the lab. This is because many labs have failed to first address foundational problems related to the way people, processes, equipment and materials are managed.

Foundation for the future lab

Today’s laboratory environments are quite advanced in many ways: sophisticated devices like mass spectrometers and ultra-performance liquid chromatography systems handle highly complex measurement and analysis. Yet, when it comes to basic information and resource management, these same labs remain stuck in the Dark Ages of paper lab notebooks, manual and disjointed processes and archaic methods of data sharing and communication.

Before labs can take off running with smart innovations like augmented display and motion control, a proper foundation for managing the processes, equipment, materials and people that will interact with these adjacent technologies is required. Labs have to crawl before they walk, and walk before they run. Here are three key requirements for laying a foundation for the lab of the future.

Augmented display glasses that instantly call up all the information a scientist needs to know about a certain device could be present in the lab of the future.Standardization

Consider the following instruction: “Preheat the oven to 350°.” Whether a cook is at home, helping in a friend’s kitchen or working in a restaurant, this instruction has a standard, universal meaning. Now, consider a process common in laboratory environments: “Weigh the sample.” This simple command often has varied meanings and procedures from lab to lab—even in labs that operate within the same organization. But if a balance is not calibrated the same way, every time, and a sample is not positioned the same way, every time, and so forth, unnecessary variability will be introduced into the results. “Weigh” or “mix” or “measure pH” must have the same meaning across the R&D enterprise in order for findings to be relevant to various stakeholders organization-wide, regardless of their discipline or department.

There’s also a great deal of inconsistency in how materials are named and identified. Methanol is a material used in every single lab, but problems arise when, for example, it’s sometimes identified by a number and sometimes identified by a letter code. What happens when a lab manager or inspector wants to know, with accuracy, how much methanol is in stock? The bottom line is that standardized processes, methodologies, taxonomies and naming systems are critical to tracking resources, establishing efficient lab environments and fostering clear and seamless communication among teams, between departments and with external partners.

What does this have to do with NFC or motion capture or augmented display? Standardization is especially important when it comes to realizing the full power of technology. Without standardized vocabularies, naming systems and IDs, automating the transfer of critical data between one system, device or piece of equipment and the next (and one lab and the next) is impossible. Standardization is the key to making adjacent technologies work. Take augmented display, which supplements a person’s view of a physical environment with additional information supplied by computer-generated input. Wearing augmented display glasses, a scientist could automatically obtain information about a material simply by looking at its RFID tag. But material IDs must be consistent across all labs within an organization for this to be a useful technology to implement. (Imagine if Walgreens or CVS had a different barcoding system for every pharmacy in their network.)

NFC allows devices in the lab to communicate seamlessly with each other, but this also won’t work if the data being shared is defined differently by each device. The lab of the future can only be built on a standardized foundation.

Open technologies

Technology choice is an important consideration when modernizing the lab. Are the technologies selected open and easy to integrate with existing and future equipment and devices? Or are they proprietary, requiring complex customization and coding to connect? Moving data between systems, equipment, people and devices should be seamless and automatic, with no manual re-entry of information required. This is where the vendor community needs to step up with data formats that are non-proprietary and equipped to communicate using standard networking technologies like Wi-Fi.

In addition, an open, holistic informatics foundation capable of automatically capturing and integrating data from every person, device, piece of equipment and material in the lab makes the use of adjacent technologies like advanced identification, motion capture and augmented display much more feasible and valuable. New technologies can simply be “plugged in,” allowing organizations to create a fully connected Internet of Things in the lab. Supported by an open informatics platform, measures taken by balances, titrators and other types of lab equipment may be automatically recorded in an electronic lab notebook (ELN). Scientists wearing gloves or working in a cleanroom can use motion control to input experimental data without picking up a pen or touching a keyboard. Unique identifiers will allow lab managers to instantly identify the location and status of equipment, materials, samples and devices. Open technology opens up a host of new possibilities for bringing the physical and virtual worlds together to accelerate innovation. 

A willingness to embrace change

The most innovative technology in the world is useless, however, if nobody wants to adopt it. And convincing workers in the lab to make a change from doing things “the way they’ve always been done” is a perennial challenge. One answer is to focus on simplicity and ease of use. Technology must ultimately add value for end users or they will go back to writing notes on paper. It’s important to consider the learning curve involved in deploying new technologies, to support users with training resources and to seek out the vendors who have put effort into developing solutions that—like Apple’s personal technology—take minimal effort to setup and learn.

It’s also helpful to enlist and incentivize the tech-savvy members of the organization to help teach those who need more time to get up to speed, and to champion the benefits of change.

Finally, organizations should remember that no technology solution is going to give every user 100 percent of what they want. But if a standardized foundation has already been laid, the transition to automation will be much smoother and more broadly successful. At the end of the day, connecting 80 percent of the lab within months is better than waiting years to ensure that every request and concern is addressed.   

The lab of the future is much closer than most organizations realize. Innovations like motion control, biometrics and augmented reality hold great promise for adding new levels of efficiency, automation and collaboration to lab environments. Organizations wishing to take advantage of these innovations should focus on laying a standardization base and open foundation that can successfully support adjacent technologies. They should also actively promote the many benefits of change to accelerate the pace of transformation to the lab of the future.