Modular Equipment Taking Over
Reducing costs when establishing a new lab or redesigning an old facility is a more significant issue today than ever, says Jeff Turk, CEO of Formaspace (Austin, TX). Lab designers have responded by moving to less expensive furniture materials, away from epoxy to phenolic materials for bench tops. Phenolics are two-thirds the cost and two-thirds the weight of epoxy but retain 80 percent of epoxy’s chemical stability.
But by far the most significant trend in modern lab furniture is the move away from fixed casework and lab benches toward modular benches, tables, and worktops.
“In the past, a laboratory might have been re-tasked once every thirty years, if ever,” Turk observes. “Then the time frame shortened to every five years. Now we’re seeing some labs whose missions change more than once a year and a good number of construction projects where the lab’s anticipated use changes before the furniture arrives.”
The drivers behind lab retasking are changing workflows, the need for layout flexibility, and the changing nature of laboratory science. Thanks to advances in instrumentation and knowledge, scientific projects that several decades ago took years are now completed in a few weeks. Instrumentation has become more compact as well— mass spectrometry is the most notable example.
Jim Skillings, design specialist at WorkPlace Systems (Londonderry, NH), succinctly makes the case for modular laboratory workstations. “If you have static casework,” he says, “that’s all you have—that’s your limit. Modular furniture provides options.” Younger managers in particular bristle at the constraints posed by fixed furniture. Skillings cites several examples where managers in charge of redesigning work spaces walk into a lab and say, “Rip out all the casework.” Not every redesign needs to be so radical. Managers may retain some equipment or features and fill in the remaining space with modular furniture. For example, a 40x40-foot lab may contain large refrigerators, entryways, and several sinks, all in optimal locations, and a lot of casework. Replacing the latter with eight five-foot modular benches can provide almost as much flexibility as a full redesign. And as workflows change and people and instruments come and go, the modular units may be moved in a matter of minutes without the need to call in skilled trades.
Designing for equipment
“Automation has been taking the lab world by storm, particularly for high-throughput workflows,” Turk tells Lab Manager. “So many tasks that required a person to sit at a bench for eight hours are now accomplished in less time and with greater precision by robots.” By allowing miniaturization of many tasks, automation further drives furniture design. FormaSpace, for example, often designs furniture around a specific piece of instrumentation based on size, its need to be pulled out from a wall for servicing, or a vibration issue requiring its placement on a sturdy structure.
Turk sees this as an ongoing trend that is likely to pick up steam. For now, the barrier to deploying movable workspaces appears to be the cost of removing old casework, which can be substantial. The leading edge, therefore, will be new labs and redesigns. “Eventually these ideas will work their way into every type of lab,” he says, because the pull of working with furniture that is customized, flexible, and “better, faster, cheaper” will be irresistible. Core labs will be the last to switch, while high-throughput organizations, where cost is critical, are among the trendsetters today.
Turk mentions one of his firm’s recent projects, where a pathology lab needed to replace a floor due to faulty construction materials. Workers were able to wheel all modular furniture out of the lab and replace the floor underneath. “Instead of having a million-dollar problem, they had a ten-thousand-dollar problem,” he says. “Modular lab furniture is less expensive, you can get it faster, and it’s more rugged and adaptable. Why wouldn’t everyone switch?”
In fact, Bob Simmons, senior VP at Pro-Line (Haverhill, MA), sees redesign as a major driver or trend in modern laboratories, fueling demand for modular furniture. Describing this market as “very busy,” Simmons notes that modular work areas allow managers to “take the furniture with them if they move to a new room or building.”
Pro-Line specializes in modular systems made from steel frames and stainless steel fronts with powder coat finishes. Modular accessories such as cabinets, shelving, and power supplies can fit below the workbench or alongside on castered tables. “The setup is ideal for labs that need to be reconfigured for a new project. All they need to do is unlock the wheels and move the bench across the lab or to another room,” Simmons says.
What about utilities, which tend to be hardpiped into work areas?
That depends on how the lab is running air, electricity, and gases,” Simmons explains. If these utilities run through raceways around the walls of the lab or through similar conduits in ceilings, there is no problem.
But water can still be an issue, depending on how much a lab relies on it. Common water utilities require traditional case goods: sink, base, and water-resistant resin surface. The presence of sinks— provided not every bench requires one—still allows modular furniture for routine tasks. But with new labs or complete retrofits, sink furniture can be made to match modular workbenches in every visual respect. “Where we supply both types of workflow, all furniture is steel, painted the same, and colors and themes match,” Simmons says.
Another option, with redesigns or new facilities, is to have air lines, gas tanks, and water emanating from an island in the center of the room and modular work areas jutting out like spokes on a wheel. A more traditional option would be configuring the lab space with a separate “wet” area served by traditional casework.
Whatever they choose in terms of casework and furniture, WorkPlace Systems’ Jim Skillings recommends that managers “think modular” at the very earliest stages of setting up their lab. Labs that are configurable at the drop of a hat tend to look more professional and attractive, both for workers and for customers who happen to walk through.
“Many labs expand their business through instrument acquisition,” Skillings says. “If you can reconfigure your lab to accommodate that acquisition, you have the world at your fingertips.”