Written by Tim VerweijGlobal Automation Expert

Breda, 1 February 2024
Let’s embark on a fascinating exploration of the future of laboratories, delving into the realms of innovation that are shaping the scientific landscape. It is crystal clear innovation is revolutionizing research, experimentation, and collaboration, and the exciting possibilities that lie ahead in the ever-evolving world of laboratory science are endless. However, rapid growth in innovation is often accompanied by challenges. We'd like to explore the common challenges faced by our customers and delve into how Lab Services actively addresses them. To end it all with a progressive look into the future. 

Lack of space
Most technicians would unanimously agree that space is always at a premium. Benchtops are invariably crowded with centrifuges, pipets, PCR systems, and ELISA readers, all while the expectation is to meticulously document lab assays. This, in turn, further diminishes the available workspace due to the presence of additional computers. When considering automated solutions, one might assume that they exacerbate the space crunch, requiring room to maneuver. It may seem unappealing, especially when confronted with the prospect of fitting a large automated system into your lab. But the beauty in building in a modular way like we do with PlateButler® is that we can stack equipment on top of each other to save space. We can also build extendable shelves and turntables to provide you the option to use devices as stand-alone units, if that it is also a big plus for the ease of maintenance of the equipment. Witnessing our designs in action reveals systems that are not only fast, lean, and flexible but also surprisingly space-efficient. Even with the addition, removal, or replacement of devices, our solutions maintain their effectiveness for your research without necessitating the occupation of yet another benchtop with equipment. 

Out with the old, in with the new
Let's face it, who doesn't love robots, right? We frequently encounter technicians who are hesitant to work with or implement robots. It's not always resistance to change; it can be complex or daunting, especially if you've always relied on your pipetting skills and suddenly a robot is taking over. Does that mean you're being replaced? Of course not! 

Automation should be viewed as an extension of your research, not a hindrance. Consider it in two parts:
Automation: Handling repetitive tasks.
Research: Engaging in new activities. 

Embracing automation doesn't diminish your role; rather, it frees you up to focus on innovative aspects of your research. 

Learning the system
We frequently encounter enthusiastic technicians or scientists exploring new possibilities, eagerly ordering a new system from an integrator, and then the challenge begins. The integrator seeks precise details about the requirements, but articulating them can be quite challenging. As lab operators, many tasks are performed on autopilot and may not always be explicitly outlined in a User Requirement Specification (URS). While we excel in the engineering aspect, the biological relevance varies from company to company. We make earnest efforts to provide a system with all necessary information, but achieving this demands substantial effort and effective communication between both parties. Without this essential communication, assumptions are made by both parties, often resulting in a system that doesn't align with the mutual agreement. 

When the new system is delivered on-site, it should be regarded not only as the implementation of a robotic system but also as the development of an assay. While the purpose and functionalities of the system are clear, the focus during construction is often on ensuring that all components are present, functional, and accessible to the system. Ultimately, it's more than just technology; it's about the people involved. 

Acknowledging the efforts of staff in fine-tuning the system for biological relevance, providing additional training from integrators or operators, and cultivating a positive atmosphere all contribute to a smoother transition. The success of a system isn't solely determined by its technical aspects but also by the collaborative efforts of the individuals working with it. Lab Services can even customize your software GUI or prompts to align with your commands, further enhancing the user experience and overall system performance. 

This is a significant subject, growing in importance each year, and highly relevant to our industry. In a laboratory setting, we consume more energy, water, and plastic compared to, say, an office space. Sustainability is not merely a checkbox; it should be a guiding principle that we all strive to incorporate into our practices. There are various avenues for improvement, such as the washing and reuse of labware, downsizing assays, or consolidating tasks onto a single chip. These solutions can be integrated into different platforms, but as a company, we also need to assess how we can minimize our environmental impact within our platforms. This may involve exploring the use of alternative materials or implementing energy-saving measures. 

Remote work
As evident during the COVID lockdowns, laboratory work must continue, and remote work is challenging for those in a lab environment. However, this situation has also spurred some exciting innovations that we can embrace. Consider the concept of remote Factory Acceptance Tests. This can be conducted through communication platforms like Teams or Zoom, where a person with a laptop walks around the system. Yet, the experience becomes even more engaging and beneficial when utilizing virtual reality (VR) glasses. This technology can expedite system design processes as well. 

Moreover, applications or online access to platforms would be incredibly useful. Technicians and scientists are not always physically present in the lab, so having the ability to monitor machine statuses from a laptop at their desk or even from home would be highly advantageous. 

The future = Innovation
Lab Services is unequivocally committed to an innovative future, extending beyond addressing the challenges faced by our customers. The trajectory of innovation is poised to reach even greater heights in the years to come.  

The most significant innovation we envision for automated platforms centers around software, particularly in three key areas:
  • Cloud-based automation: Embracing cloud-based platforms enables remote access, streamlined data management, and centralized control of automated systems. This facilitates simplified management and collaboration, allowing easy access to systems and providing an overview of all connected systems.
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning: Integrating AI and ML capabilities into automation systems holds the potential to optimize workflows, learn from historical data, and adapt to evolving requirements. Instead of relying on scripting, the software for the overall platform could be designed to allow users to articulate their intentions directly. Cloud-based data could be leveraged to enable the robot to predict or select the next assays to run, particularly in scenarios involving invalid assays or screenings.
  • AR / VR (Augmented Reality / Virtual Reality): AR can guide technicians through intricate procedures by overlaying virtual instructions and real-time data while they stand in front of the system, aiding in issue resolution. Additionally, VR could be utilized to set up a design and assay workflow from home. Users could virtually walk around the system to assess its behavior without causing downtime.
As we navigate the evolving landscape, one thing is clear – the future of laboratories is defined by continuous innovation, promising a realm of exciting opportunities and advancements. Here's to embracing the transformative path ahead and unlocking new horizons in scientific discovery and efficiency.