Today we inhabit an increasingly connected world populated by smart homes, self-driving cars and numerous other devices and systems that enhance productivity and quality of life. According to the McKinsey consulting firm, we will be surrounded by 30 billion connected devices by the year 2020.
Yet in laboratories, already filled with highly sophisticated digital equipment, the trend toward interconnectedness has lagged behind the curve. Despite the benefits of connectivity, lab equipment and operations have failed to acquire “smart” status as quickly as many other commercial sectors.
“Everything is still predominantly manual,” says Puneet Suri, vice president of Smart Lab and Digital Science at Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Thermo Fisher Scientific. “We still see handwritten lab notes, plates and consumables tagged with markers and inefficient sample tracking, all of which can lead to experimental error.”
A Connected Imperative
Laboratory equipment is made by a wide range of manufacturers, frequently giving rise to compatibility issues. Laboratory workers often must collect data from one device after another before compiling it manually.
“This is a huge waste of time.”
“This is a huge waste of time,” says Markus Gershater, chief scientific officer at Synthace. The London-based startup is developing Antha, a high-level language and operating system for laboratories and other scientific environments. “It is a waste of the capabilities of scientists, who should be focusing all their efforts on doing science.”
Generating and collecting experimental data undoubtedly leads to operational inefficiencies and loss of key information. According to the scientific journal Nature, the annual cost of irreproducibility in biological research stands at a staggering $28 billion in the US alone.
“A great deal of data is simply not being captured,” says Charles Fracchia, CEO of BioBright, an MIT-Harvard startup working to connect lab instruments with sensors and software. “This information could help scientists understand better what does and doesn’t work in an experiment, and help other scientists reproduce work.”
Synthace’s Antha software lets scientists specify what they’re trying to study, suggests experiments, compiles reports and controls lab equipment. To overcome the problems associated with heterogeneous equipment, Synthace has developed “drivers” for a diverse range of devices from different manufacturers.
“A particularly powerful function of Antha is running liquid-handling robots,” says Synthace’s Gershater. “These robots can perform the central functions of most experiments, but in practice aren’t often used because of the difficulty of programming them.”
Predicting Failures And Cloud-Based Solutions
Predictive maintenance is another area where connected laboratories offer significant benefits.
“Smart laboratory equipment is designed to be self-healing,” says Thermo Fisher’s Suri. “Just like an iPhone, these instruments can update themselves with no overhead or need for a field service engineer. Using analytics, they can even predict failures in advance, preventing equipment downtime.”
A number of companies are also developing cloud-based solutions for connecting laboratories.
“Purchasing a cloud-based system can help a laboratory achieve significant cost savings,” says Michael Davis, a web architect with Atlanta-based, cloud solution developer MediaLab. “It means less on-site hardware to maintain and fewer personnel required to maintain that hardware. The use of on-site solutions is also increasingly risky, especially with the growing threat of cyberattack.”
Other benefits of cloud-based solutions include faster turnaround times for the approval of new policies or procedures, and more efficient and effective training systems for employees.
Towards a Smarter Future
It will be many years before scientific research can be performed entirely by artificial intelligence and robots. Nevertheless, automation can play an increasing role in laboratory workflows requiring defined repetitive tasks and standard operating procedures.
“Enhanced connectivity can drive a transformational shift in the way laboratories operate and add value in many areas,” says Frank Kumli, an executive director in Ernst & Young’s Global Life Sciences division specializing in healthcare delivery innovation. “The fragmented and standalone nature of laboratory devices is both a problem and opportunity that needs to addressed now.”