If you could see into the future, you would know what tomorrow’s finest products will be and understand the most effective methods to produce them. You could skip many of the arduous steps required in research and development (R&D) without neglecting compliance or quality.

In the absence of a magic crystal ball, however, company leaders are left asking tough questions. How do we gather the necessary intelligence to accelerate insights? Which tools fast-track innovation and accelerate time to market? How do we know what to test for when developing new products? Where do we acquire knowledge and how do we share it effectively?

Many companies are evaluating their work practices and IT infrastructures in an effort to remove the barriers to innovation and improve efficiency in every aspect of their laboratories. Most of these organizations have deployed home-built or packaged information systems, but entrenched manual and paper-based lab processes remain. In many cases, laboratory systems lack integration with other enterprise systems and equipment, which inhibits the company-wide flow of knowledge.

At the heart of these concerns lies a fundamental question: What is the perfect lab? Here’s the short answer: A perfect lab modernizes the R&D workflow with centralized information systems that are integrated and collaboration-centric. It connects people, processes, materials and systems in a cohesive way while simplifying compliance.

The perfect lab may not have a crystal ball that foretells the future, but it can help science-driven organizations arrive at the future more quickly. Organizations that optimize their labs can improve productivity and sustainability while maintaining effortless compliance.
This article explores some of the fundamentals that may contribute to an optimal lab environment for materials development and suggests ways organizations can incorporate them.

Preserve knowledge
The difference between raw data and useful information often comes down to context. To turn data into information, you must be able to access that data, aggregate it from multiple sources, and put it in a context that facilitates analysis. Moving from information to insight and knowledge requires interpreting information in context, acting on it, reviewing it, assessing actions and collaborating with colleagues who build knowledge as a team.

If everyone in the organization has access to the same knowledge base, everything works better. To enable this vision, information and context should flow from end to end through various systems, leveraging real-time data and process metadata from instruments, methods and supplies so knowledge is available at every decision point. And it would enable scientists to drill down into contextual data so they can better manage knowledge and meet compliance requirements.

To effectively manage knowledge, science-driven companies need a self-service, ad hoc data-access platform. This platform should simplify analysis and reporting by making data contextually accessible. Authorized users should be able to easily access information through a self-service environment that consolidates process data from multiple disparate sources. Such a system would permit scientists to easily collaborate with colleagues regardless of location and generate knowledge using a shared, mutually valuable process.

Standardize information
The preservation and sharing of knowledge begins with the commitment to capture all laboratory data digitally so it can be easily managed and accessed at any point in the laboratory workflow. As data is transformed into knowledge it should be preserved and shared through the entire innovation and product development lifecycle—from product ideation through downstream processes. Information isn’t isolated in detached systems or paper records. If senior staff members leave, they don’t take knowledge with them and leave behind a hole in the knowledge base.
A standardized and connected information system is particularly valuable for improving materials management. The inability to efficiently manage materials is a common barrier to innovation. Paper records are notoriously difficult to keep up to date. Isolated spreadsheets are prone to errors and may lack context. Using these outdated methods to track and manage chemicals and processes can stand in the way of good compliance practices—and also lead to higher material costs.

When materials management functions are standardized in a digital information system, researchers can quickly locate and request needed materials regardless of where they are stored. Effective data management is especially important for hazardous materials. A unified chemical inventory management system creates a firm foundation for accurate materials reporting, compliance and lab safety.   

Streamline research with social networking
Many enterprises rely on a variety of home-built and packaged information systems that are each designed for only one specific need. These systems typically don’t share information with each other. Because data is isolated in detached systems, key procedural methods are not always standardized. Thus people are prone to invent new procedures and tests every time they experiment. For a simple pH test, an organization may have 20 different methods in different systems. Nobody knows which one provides value in making the next decision.

The perfect lab would eliminate these complications via an integrated information platform that leverages modern social networking models to streamline scientific research and collaboration among peers. Such a platform would connect labs to make it easy for scientists to request tests from colleagues. New processes and vocabulary designed for the unique requirements of scientific experimentation could enable people to substantiate processes and outcomes similar to “liking” and “ranking” on conventional social networking platforms.

A secure scientific social networking platform would allow people to effortlessly share reviews and opinions about processes, equipment and results. The knowledge gained from their experience would be easy for everyone to access as they request work. If a department or lab in another location previously ran an experiment, anyone in the company could benefit from their efforts when undertaking similar research. Lab technicians could apply this knowledge to bypass redundant and unnecessary testing and avoid having to reinvent the process each time.

In an organization that digitizes processes and consistently captures data, everybody in the lab can build on the shared knowledge base. As this enterprise knowledge base grows, virtual testing and experimentation become increasingly viable, valuable and accessible. With virtual testing, scientists can reduce costs and speed time to market by avoiding the need to run all possible combinations physically.

CPG and materials science companies can take a cue from best practices in the automotive industry. With virtual testing, the automotive industry has substantially reduced the number of physical crash tests required to evaluate a new product. Standardized processes enable scientists to access virtual tests as easily as physical tests and obtain context about the test. Supported by data that has been contextualized by the integrated information system, a single virtual test can bring laboratory technicians closer to the answer they seek than numerous costly physical tests can. The adoption rate of these quick and less-expensive virtual tests is expected to accelerate as lab workers recognize their expediency.

Automate workflows to boost efficiency
In the perfect lab, people don’t waste time searching for data. Instead, information is accessible to them as they make each decision and move to the next step in a process. Enterprise knowledge, gathered from past experience, is always available at every decision point.

Many times the next decision is to request materials or request that a test be run. As technicians request tests, the information system can automatically notify lab managers, who can appraise allocations and distribute work. Once the work is completed, the system can automatically route information and context back to the person who requested the tests. Pre-established business rules determine what data and notifications to route to whom.

In the perfect lab, the information system can recognize common workflow needs and help automate them to remove guesswork and minimize searching. Workflows are further streamlined by facilitating analysis early in the R&D process. The perfect lab can provide access to analytical processes through every stage of development.

See the future in a connected enterprise
Providing everyone in the organization with more cohesive ways to access and analyze information can enable people to skip unnecessary tests and experiments while maintaining compliance and quality. Enterprise-wide preservation and sharing of knowledge can streamline workflows, speed development cycles, improve materials management and support virtual testing to make processes more efficient throughout the product lifecycle.

In the perfect lab, all people, processes, materials and systems are connected along the R&D continuum, from product ideation to commercialization. Scientists can accelerate innovation and improve operational excellence with real-time, on-demand data access, analysis and reporting of manufacturing and process development data.