A shaky economy. Skilled labor shortages. Ongoing lab space consolidation and build-outs. Rapidly changing workflows and instrument layout. Innovations in instrument technologies. Dynamic and variable demand for unpredictable volumes of tests. Changing requirements for sample and consumable storage environments. Evolving safety standards and protocols.
These are just some of the challenges that lab operations managers and clinical directors are now facing—many of these changes are driving immediate requirements for new agile thinking in how labs can be organized, configured, optimized and updated.
Getting to science faster
Lab managers and lab operations managers at pharmaceutical, independent labs, biotech, and real estate all showed up at the 5th Annual Lab Asset and Facilities Management (LAFM)1 event in Boston to discuss ‘Ensuring Success Through Transformation Lab Operations.” Presenters and attendees represented companies such as Sanofi, Pfizer, Amgen, Eli Lilly, GSK (GlaxoSmithKline), Vertex Pharmaceuticals, CBRE, Novo Nordisk, Charles River Laboratories, and many more. With a focus on optimizing operations and accelerating the science, the key tracks or topic areas included lab asset management, facility design, and operations. Among the many challenges discussed at the conference, a central theme that was elevated often was the need to empower lab operations/managers with the tools that enable them to increase the transparency, sharing, understanding of lab instrumentation utilization, and ongoing management of change.
The need to digitally transform lab design
The trend toward digital transformation of the life sciences laboratory into a Lab of the Future (LoF) covers a broad spectrum of disciplines and digitization from data storage/analysis, real-time instrument utilization to sustainability, artificial intelligence, and machine learning—all with the goal of getting the science done better, faster, safer, more accurately, and more cost-effectively.
Regardless of where organizations are on the spectrum of digital transformation and modernization in their labs, it was evident at LAFM that there is a serious gap in the lab digital transformation playbook.
That gap is in space design and workflow/instrument layout optimization, particularly as it relates to ongoing rearrangements in the lab that are necessary to keep the science going amid consolidations, changing experimental workflows, new lab space buildouts, changing instrumentation, and more.
The current methods and tools for managing such change in the space design of a lab are between two opposite ends of the spectrum—from antiquated diagrams on graph paper, Microsoft Office tools (e.g., Visio, PowerPoint), cardboard boxes, and LEGO, to high-end building information modeling (BIM) software such as Autodesk Revit used by trained architects.
Cost of lab stakeholder misalignment
Imagine, as a lab operations/manager you need to execute a smooth transition from one instrument workflow to another. Even if the instruments and space parameters remain the same, there are a lot of challenges to overcome. First and foremost is finding the ideal workflow arrangement by collaborating with all the stakeholders, from the scientists to the technicians, facilities management, safety groups, and more. As shared by various lab managers at the LAFM conference, “the challenge around design collaboration is real.”
So, not to overlook anything, getting all the stakeholders involved early and on the same page is critical. It also helps increase your chances of successful buy-in and adoption for the recommended lab changes. The cost of unplanned downtime for not getting it right can be significant. It often depends on your labs and lab types, their complexity, the frequency of change, and the overall costs in time and resources to execute these changes. On top of that, the cost of lab space is at a historical premium, with labs at the high-end coming in at $1,325 per square foot2, creating financial pressure to use every last inch of lab space where possible.
Bridging the gap
The gap we are talking about is not just around technology; it’s also about empowerment and engagement. Having the right tools is critical, but empowering the right people at the right time to engage stakeholders effectively drives actionable and positive change. New immersive and digital twins and lab visualization/layout tools are playing a significant role to empower lab operations/managers so they are not relying on outdated, inflexible, and inefficient tools, renderings, processes, or a separate and often costly/slow internal or external architect group to do their job. To be clear, it is not about replacing architects—it is about enabling more effective engagement and communication with the architects when it makes sense, and enabling greater agility when it does not. Articulated more than once at the LAFM conference, lab managers often had equipment sitting in a hallway not being used, not doing the critical science, because of poor space planning.
Adapting to rapid and frequent change
Beyond the LAFM event, separate discussions with a continuous improvement manager at a large independent laboratory (with thousands of facilities around the world) stated, “Our lab managers are under constant pressure to maintain agile lab designs, drive costs down, and accommodate constant changes in lab technology [and] techniques as well as optimal workflow and spatial efficiency. We literally do not have time to get it wrong.”
To keep up with rapid and frequent lab changes they are utilizing an interactive lab design tool3 and digital twins of their labs to design and modify their lab space—and workflow/instrument layouts—in just minutes. They can then visualize and experience these newly created labs in 3D, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR), which allows for easy process flow simulation input before implementation. The benefits and overall cost savings of this digital transformed approach is staggering:
- 3x reduction in labor costs to layout lab space, versus previous methods
- 100 percent success rate in design changes that would previously require re-work and unplanned downtime
- 2x reduction in time to achieve stakeholder buy-in, helping to eliminate the ‘fear of change’
- Labs went from underperforming to best-in-class due to universal workflow efficiencies
A user was quoted as saying, “...it does such a good job of helping to model the space and flow of samples and worker movement, and helping teams to collaborate, visualize, and buy into the process, that it guarantees a successful transformation.”
After the adoption of the interactive lab design tool across the country, this independent lab estimated a potential cost savings in the millions.
Digital lab design tools
New immersive and visually engaging lab space design and workflow/instrument layout tools need to become a critical part of any lab operations/manager’s digital transformation playbook toward the Lab of the Future. Dare I say they are low-hanging fruit that has not been given the attention they deserve, regardless of your challenges and the tools you are considering for addressing this gap and removing the barriers from getting the science done.
David Gould is senior lab design product manager at Kaon Interactive.