The laboratory is a complex and constantly evolving space. The environment changes as tenured veterans pass knowledge to new recruits, and the stage is set for new ideas and collaborations. As new lines of inquiry, techniques, and models emerge, the physical laboratory space must be adapted to support them. Modern laboratory design emphasizes features that enable flexibility for growth and change to ensure longevity. Purchasing considerations are increasingly focused on flexible spaces for collaboration, efficiency, and sustainability as well as data management.
Flexible design for shared spaces
A laboratory space designed to promote collaboration offers numerous benefits. Often, when several groups are operating in the same laboratory space, individuals are separated by benches and shelving, sequestered to their individual workstations. Such designs lack the potential for much spontaneous interaction or dialogue between teams, eliminating the benefits for productivity, problemsolving, and morale.
A key design element for collaborative spaces is visual connection, which can encourage more interaction. In addition to facilitating idea sharing and troubleshooting, a collaborative space makes it easier to share supplies and optimize equipment use to prevent the accumulation of redundant resources.
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 on supports the ongoing evolution of the laboratory.
Prioritizing efficiency and sustainability
Laboratories consume an enormous amount of energy. Opting for more efficient equipment and design makes a lab more environmentally and financially sustainable. Fortunately, there are more options for efficient lab equipment than ever before.
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 numerous 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 (AC) 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.
Ultra-low temperature freezers are crucial for preserving valuable samples. Unfortunately, for a single freezer to maintain negative 80 degrees Celsius, 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.
While HVAC, fume hoods, and freezers 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. Sustainable lighting can go a long way in reducing energy consumption. For new designs, maximizing natural light reduces energy consumption and offers the added benefits of increased comfort and productivity, whereas new and existing spaces can integrate motion sensors for additional energy savings. There are also more sustainable options for casework; units consisting of wood from sustainable forests and recycled steel are a more affordable and environmentally friendly alternative.
Integrated data management
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 laboratories working with structured data, such as sample mass and pH. LIMS are used for sample tracking and management, and workflow automation, and are especially useful for supporting compliance efforts. Electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) on the other hand, are better suited for laboratories working with 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, tools for collaboration, and inventory management.
More niche data management systems include chromatography data systems (CDS) and lab execution systems (LES). CDS are used specifically for managing chromatography instruments, and can be integrated with LIMS for data storage. LES are ideal for manufacturing and quality control, as they enforce standard operating procedures by directing the user to complete specific steps in the method or process. Integrating a data management system into the lab requires a thorough understanding of current workflows and areas of projected growth and change to select a solution that will improve efficiency in the short and long-term. Creating a list of must-have features, as well as considering future areas of study and ensuring instrument compatibility are essential to make informed purchasing decisions.
As technology advances and enables new areas of investigation, the laboratory environment is rapidly evolving. Designing a flexible, sustainable environment, suited to collaboration will help to ensure productivity and longevity. Purchasing decisions centered around casework, energy efficiency, and data management must be carefully considered to ensure equipment and space are optimized for current operations, with the ability to adapt for changing focus and new discoveries.