The laboratory is a complex and constantly evolving space. We have learned throughout 2020 and into 2021, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, that the ability to quickly adapt laboratory spaces and processes is critical to success. Not only did these rapid adaptations ensure laboratories could remain open and deliver critical operations during a very challenging time, they also led to the discovery of new and better ways to work. As a result, purchasing considerations should include factors such as remote capabilities, software, flexibility, automation, and sustainability that support this shift, and enhance efficiency and productivity into the future.
While laboratories shifted to remote work out of necessity, the technologies that supported this shift will remain relevant. Throughout the pandemic, remote monitoring, for example, offered peace of mind that critical assets—such as ultralow temperature freezers and incubators—were operating within defined parameters while the staff were off-site. Now, this technology can be used to monitor hundreds of assets in the laboratory, to alert staff of instrument or equipment failures, predict failures before they occur, and even support cleanroom contamination control and regulatory compliance.
Similarly, remote diagnostics and support services have rapidly developed to overcome restrictions for on-site vendors. This technology enables laboratory staff to connect with engineers and technicians via phone or video call to diagnose and troubleshoot connected instruments, and even perform routine maintenance. In addition to reducing the number of on-site visits, remote support facilitates a rapid response and can reduce costly downtime and delays.
Modern laboratories generate enormous amounts of data, especially for genetic screening and drug development applications. As high-throughput applications continue to expand, implementing a data management system to support the specific needs of the laboratory is as important as the physical workspace. The right data management software transitions the laboratory toward paperless data acquisition, analysis, storage, and sharing, and improves efficiency and data quality. With a variety of data management options available, careful consideration is required to select a platform that meets current demands with room for growth.
Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) are ideal for sample tracking and management, workflow automation, instrument utilization, and supporting compliance efforts. LIMS are also effective for laboratories with a significant amount of structured data. Electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) complement a LIMS by effectively managing large amounts of unstructured data, such as images and chemical configurations. An ELN is designed to replace the paper laboratory notebook, and many include templates for protocols and observations, tools for collaboration, and inventory management.
Beyond data management, software can be used to design, automate, and execute entire workflows, and track samples and results. Some cloud-based software can be used to design, execute, and share protocols remotely. These solutions were critical in supporting laboratories with restricted on-site access during the pandemic. Going forward, they have the potential to increase productivity by reducing manual steps—which are also prone to variability between staff members. Software can also facilitate improved method transfer within and between laboratories, to improve repeatability. Many software options offer complete traceability and are suitable for compliant laboratories.
Software can also replace paper records to improve inventory management. These platforms enable laboratories to easily track consumables, check expiration dates, and item location in the laboratory. Some also link safety data sheets to products, and others enable users to submit order requests from the laboratory floor.
Flexible spaces and automation
As research becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, and workflows, processes, and technology change, there is a need for flexible laboratory space. Open designs can be achieved with moveable casework, an important purchasing consideration for any laboratory renovating or designing a new space. Opting for moveable benches with overhead service carriers for utilities—including water, vacuum, power, and gas—enable labs to reconfigure space as needed, creating opportunities for interaction and maximizing resources. Flexible casework also makes it easier to integrate new equipment and optimize workflows, as many designs include adjustable height and mobility compared to fixed casework.
As a result, flexible casework may be more expensive than standard fixed units. However, a potentially large upfront investment may yield financial savings over time and enable new research endeavors. Adopting a new research focus or delving further into an existing focus may be the most logical next step, but is next to impossible if a laboratory requires extensive, costly renovations to support the experiments. Investing in flexibility early supports the ongoing evolution of the laboratory.
Flexibility is also an important feature for automation and robotics. Workflows and processes change, and automated devices that offer flexibility to be reconfigured for different tasks enable users to apply automation to a wide range of tasks. With the internet of things (IoT) and multiple connected devices to choose from—such as pipettes, shakers, vacuum manifolds, and more—it is easier than ever to apply automation to a variety of workflows.
Prioritizing efficiency and sustainability
There is a growing need for energy-efficient instruments and equipment to reduce operating costs as well as the laboratory’s environmental impact. Fortunately, there are more options than ever before for efficient lab equipment.
In many laboratories, a few systems consume the largest proportion of the total energy requirements. HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), freezers, and fume hoods have some of the highest rates of consumption, and replacing or upgrading to more efficient systems can have a dramatic environmental impact and produce significant financial savings. Variable-air-volume systems operate based on the needs of the room with the largest heating load, which dictates the air temperature supplied by the central unit. Each individual space reheats the air as required. Laboratories with the option to implement new HVAC systems may consider chilled beam cooling, which supplies warmer air that is dynamically cooled by each individual space.
Certainly, replacing HVAC systems is not feasible for all labs. However, there are other ways to improve efficiency without replacing existing infrastructure. For example, more affordable solutions can be implemented to reduce the energy requirements for air exchange. Frequent air exchanges are essential for safety, but incorporating occupancy sensors for air exchanges can reduce the frequency during off-hours, such as nights and weekends.
Fume hoods are also a large source of energy consumption. Newer models that have electronically commutated motors are an efficient alternative to alternating current motors. Similarly, units with digital controls for air supply enable modulation based on use. Automated features, such as presence detection, can be used to reduce face velocity.
Ultralow temperature freezers are crucial for preserving valuable samples. Unfortunately, for a single freezer to maintain -80°C it consumes the same amount of energy as an entire United States household. New compressor designs substantially reduce energy consumption, and insulation improves temperature isolation. Newer models also eliminate the use of chlorofluorocarbons, potent greenhouse gases that have negative implications for human health. Energy efficiency is further improved with well-organized drawers and doors for individual compartments. These small changes can reduce temperature increases that occur with prolonged or frequent opening.
Changing lighting in labs is another way to reduce operational costs and help the environment. Exchanging old fluorescent lighting fixtures for more efficient light-emitting diode technology can pay back the replacement cost in a short time, and reduce the hazardous waste of disposing of old fluorescent bulbs.
While HVAC, fume hoods, freezers, and lighting have enormous energy demands, hundreds of other instruments and pieces of equipment contribute to overall energy consumption. Investing in instruments with options for remote control is a simple way to reduce energy use. Mobile apps now offer operators the ability to regulate a variety of instruments, powering them down when not in use.
Laboratory equipment manufacturers, vendors, and service providers have developed solutions to overcome the challenges of remote work, automation, data management, and sustainability. For customers, new purchasing considerations such as flexibility, remote capabilities, software, and energy efficiency are important to identify products and services that will support the new way of work.