Lab Design and Furnishings

Increasing Speed and Efficiency through Lab Automation

Quest Diagnostics to open flagship lab facility in New Jersey

MaryBeth DiDonna
Artistic rendering of Quest Diagnostics’ new 250,000 sq. ft. flagship lab in Clifton, NJ, which is scheduled to perform its first patient testing in Q1 2021.
Steve Hockstein for Quest Diagnostics

Quest Diagnostics will soon have the world’s largest automated specimen testing facility when it opens its new lab in Clifton, NJ. The new lab will perform routine diagnostic testing for 40 million people throughout the eastern region of the US, spanning from New York to Virginia. The goal is to offer a more comprehensive testing menu, faster turnaround, and additional capacity to accommodate more patients and clients. The NJEDA (New Jersey Economic Development Authority) project will act as the flagship lab in Quest’s portfolio, with the highest volume output per square foot in the industry. The 250,000 sq. ft. diagnostic wet lab will be paired with a five-story, 375,000 sq. ft. parking structure, with expansion rights for 400 additional parking bays. The Quest facility will become part of the mixed-use ON3 campus along northern New Jersey’s Route 3, and will occupy about 12 acres within the 116-acre campus. Slated to open in early 2021, the lab will house more than 1,100 employees and provide enhanced diagnostic information services to more than 40 million people in the Mid-Atlantic. Quest Diagnostics, by building this new facility, aims to employ people throughout New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania by mid-2021.

The project team is led by GRE, acting on behalf of Quest as the developer and real estate and facilities program manager, heading project efforts from land acquisition through certificate of occupancy. Also on the project team are Flad Architects (architect), WSP (MEP engineer), Mark Cavagnero Associates (design architect), Langan Engineering (civil engineer), and Gilbane Building Co. (construction manager).

Lab consolidation

The flagship laboratory in Clifton will replace Quest Diagnostics’ current laboratory in Teterboro, NJ, which has a nearly 40-year-old infrastructure. The project will also consolidate two hub labs in smaller markets, leveraging their new footprints for rapid response testing, and bringing all that talent and capacity under one modern, state-of-the-art roof, says Robert Roggeman, senior director of program management, Quest Diagnostics, East Region. “The most exciting thing about new construction is that it is 100 percent purpose-built—meaning that every pipe, every outlet, every floor plan was designed for us, by us, to deliver our dream lab that we believe will transform the market for our customers and patients with high-volume testing throughput, increased productivity, and increased capacity. Not to mention the value it will bring to our employees with a truly exquisite, modern new laboratory to call home with all the amenities and tons of natural lighting,” he says. “If you can’t tell I’m thrilled yet…I am!”

The main laboratory clinical hematology automation floor houses two high-throughput automation lines. The lab accommodates four high-volume storage units, each able to store up to 300,000 samples, for a total of 1.2 million sample storage capacity. The automation lines transfer the specimens from the high-capacity storage units, to the testing equipment on the main laboratory floor. The two automation lines have overhead bridges and feature a pedestrian walkway below.

The new Quest laboratory “was built from the ground up with the intent to incorporate automation technology at a scale that truly no one has seen before,” says Roggeman. “We have not one, but two identical automation lines for clinical testing and microbiology with the capacity to perform about 140,000 requisitions per day and room to grow. And with power bridges between both lines, we are able to be agile in ways that were previously not possible, allowing us to meet the demands of customers and virtually never stop running because of those redundancies built into the operations plan.”

The goal behind this lab facility is to utilize building design and automated technology to offer a wide range of advanced diagnostic information services. The Clifton lab follows the successful implementation of Quest's "Lab of the Future" in Marlborough, MA, a 200,000 sq. ft. facility that supports more than 200 patient service centers throughout New England. The Marlborough lab uses cutting-edge, end-to-end automation in order to improve specimen tracking, speed, and quality of testing, and also provides access to medical and scientific laboratory experts for test selection, utilization, and result interpretation.

The lab design-build process

View from the main laboratory clinical hematology automation floor at Quest Diagnostics’ new flagship laboratory with two high-throughput automation lines.
Steve Hockstein for Quest Diagnostics

The Clifton project has not been without its challenges—most notably, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted lab design strategies across the globe. The plans for the Quest lab were first announced in 2018, and the world has changed significantly since then. “I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the unique challenges we’ve faced with the COVID-19 pandemic and our ability to meet our project plans. I am humbled and awed by our project team, our construction partners, and all our team members who worked diligently throughout the pandemic with intense safety protocols in place to ensure worker health and safety,” says Roggeman.

The new Quest laboratory “was built from the ground up with the intent to incorporate automation technology at a scale that truly no one has seen before,” says Santiago Galvez, vice president, laboratory operations, East Region, Quest Diagnostics. “We have not one, but two identical automation lines for clinical testing and microbiology with the capacity to perform about 140,000 requisitions per day and room to grow. And with power bridges between both lines, we are able to be agile in ways that were previously not possible, allowing us to meet the demands of customers and virtually never stop running because of those redundancies built into the operations plan.”

Quest’s role as a diagnostics company on the front lines of COVID-19 molecular and serology testing has put it in a rather unique position to deal with the coronavirus crisis. “Frontline employee safety has been a tremendous priority from us. This includes applying our best practices—six-foot social distancing, mandatory temperature checks, mandatory face masks, frequent handwashing, and hand sanitizing, etc.—because we are committed to doing what needed to be done the right way for our workers,” remarks Galvez. “Additionally, travel restrictions and quarantine protocols limited our ability to bring in experts from out of the country as we installed the automation lines. This required us to get creative with staffing and leverage virtual technologies, much like the rest of the world. We have not slipped on our project plan and remain on schedule to perform the first patient test in Q1 of 2021.”

The goal behind this automated lab is to create a space conducive to quick, accurate diagnostics work. The Quest Diagnostics National Operations Leaders, says Galvez, were crucial in helping to design a facility that similar labs can look to as an example for their own spaces. “My advice would be to start with your ultimate purpose and build up from there,” he says. “We’ve all seen laboratories in the past that are retrofitted into spaces that were not ideal or conducive to the environment you want to create, optimal operating efficiency, or agility. I know our previous and current laboratories were not ideal and it strains on the business.

By being 100 percent purpose-built, we invested for our own future and the future of our customers by designing with automation in mind that will deliver the right mix of capabilities, scale, and operational efficiencies that will improve their overall experience with us. I believe this lesson of design intent can be applied to any footprint large or small when thinking about the laboratory of your dreams.”

The design of the lab incorporates a lot of flexibility to account for future technological advances and different kinds of equipment that may be needed in the coming years. “As you can imagine, our Quest Diagnostics Clifton Laboratory was a huge investment we’ve made for our future growth and the growth of our customers, so we’ve pre-planned for room to grow,” says Galvez. “Our main automation floor has an additional 20,000 sq. ft. to expand, capability to add a third automation line, and additional equipment.” Staffing additions are also a concern, says Galvez, who adds that the design plan can accommodate a hiring boom. “On the administrative side, we have room built in for additional administrative space and our five-story parking garage can be expanded to seven stories if needed, to accommodate more employees.”

The innovative automated system in this flagship facility, says Galvez, is a “game changer” in terms of how Quest Diagnostics’ customers can access its full network of labs. “Through automation, proprietary robotics, high-capacity storage, and quality enterprise management systems, we have digitized the entire end-to-end experience. By going digital, we are working smarter, ensuring quality, [knowing] where the sample is at all times, and creating a better user experience for our customers and patients.”