Not too far off from now, lab managers could be overseeing mostly digital experiments as models and simulations continue to become more commonplace in the lab, replacing lab animals, human test subjects, and complicated experimental apparatus. According to Dassault Systèmes CEO Bernard Charlès, such digitalization will mean big changes for everyday lab activities down the road.
“First of all, a science-based industry, like any other industry in the economy, is going to leverage digitalization more and more,” Charlès said at Dassault Systèmes’ BIOVIA Community Conference held in Orlando in May. He added that the average life cycle of lab instruments is about 15 years, and most often they are connected to PCs. “The PC is more part of the instrument than part of the IT infrastructure. If you think about it very long term, those [instruments] will probably become [part of] the Internet of Things (IoT). I think this entire area of lab activities is going to go through a significant evolution with digitalization to connect a virtual thing with the real experiment.”
Currently, many sectors are moving toward using more modeling and simulations in their labs, and Charlès says he expects that trend to continue, with increasing importance being put on the ability to evaluate and predict everything from how well a car design will stand up in a crash to how a new drug will affect a human being.
“The future of your companies will only come about if you’re able to evaluate and predict with the digital twin,” Charlès told an audience of BIOVIA end users during his opening remarks at the conference.
That “digital twin” is essentially a virtual model that acts the same as a real-life process or object. In fact, Dassault Systèmes was the first software company to demonstrate the concept 20 years ago in a partnership with Boeing, which designed its 747 airplane based solely on a virtual model, rather than through a physical prototype, for the first time in history.
“Lab managers will face a fantastic turn here,” said BIOVIA’s Reza Sadeghi, regarding the impact such digital twins will have in the lab. “Computers are now fast enough and the algorithms are now correct enough for the materials [that it’s possible] to replace equipment with a digital equivalent.”
Such replacement is already happening. However, Sadeghi says he doesn’t expect all lab equipment to vanish.
“Very, very arcane equipment is being replaced,” he said. “Of course, new equipment will be coming in. I’m not suggesting equipment will go away [completely], but the analogy of the digital twin extends to equipment that sits in the lab as well.”
Lab manager in the middle
Digital platforms will not only make it easier for lab managers to collaborate with departments within their organizations and with outside organizations, but they will also make lab managers’ work more visible.
“In companies, the labs’ activities are kind of specialized, dedicated to certain domains,” Charlès explained. “The more they digitalize their experiences, the more the value of what they do becomes visible to others.”
He adds that instead of sharing a written report with colleagues, lab managers will now share the digital twin of the work they’ve been doing, which other departments can then apply to their own processes.
“It’s a completely new game plan for lab managers,” he said. “I think it will be exciting for labs.”
Modeling and simulations, along with digital platforms that are consistent across different departments and instruments, will also continue to open up what lab managers can do and connect them with other kinds of labs, Charlès said.
“Today the labs are very isolated in terms of experimentation depending on which materials [they work with]…whether it’s an electronic lab or an electromagnetic lab or a materials lab, a bio lab— they are all siloes,” he said. “But I think with [a consistent digital platform], many specialized lab experiences will become connected to others, [becoming ] what is called a ‘metaphysic’ environment. When you add physical labs onto virtual labs, you can do much more.”
Such technology and virtual models will also make science more attractive to potential lab managers as well, Charlès added.
“With the new generation coming out of school, they like to have modernized modeling and simulation in the labs—they don’t want to only have instrumentation connected to a PC,” he said. “They want a new world. I think that will increase the value and the interest of new generations to be part of that community.”
An example of this can be seen in fabrication labs, also known as “fab labs,” where engineering students, instead of just designing something and passing it off to someone else to build, are now making their designs themselves through 3-D printing.
“They want to do 3-D printing themselves. They want to do laser cutting themselves. Why? Because it’s digitally driven,” Charlès said. “I think that in the lab, things will happen in a similar way.”
Cost cutting and collaboration
With experimentation going digital, both Charlès and Sadeghi expect labs’ costs will go down. Better collaboration will also help lessen the impact on lab managers’ budgets. A large pharmaceutical company with many types of laboratories, for example, would realize huge savings just by having the ability for all of those labs to work together instead of as separate entities.
“That consolidation in terms of savings, cycle time savings, error-capture reduction savings, and cost savings is enormous,” Sadeghi said.
Charlès added that he expects many testing labs will become certification labs in the future.
“There is a big difference between testing and certifying,” he said. “It’s a new world when you have to certify, because when you have to certify, you have to prove. When you test, you just have to provide the characteristics of the test and that’s it.”
With the increased collaboration of the future, lab managers and their colleagues will be able to tackle the big problems the world faces like never before.
“We do know that, going forward, innovation cannot be the extrapolation of what was done in the past,” Charlès said. “[Researchers] will have to find and create new types of solutions, which are maybe inspired by nature, in biomimicry, inspired by biomaterials science more than the physical materials. The scope of what has to be done in these future labs has nothing to do with what it is today. This multidisciplinary aspect is going to be a real competitive advantage.”
Other Thoughts on Digitalization From The Conference
The Big Picture of the lab-Where the Vision Becomes Real
During this talk, BIOVIA’s John McCarthy and Stan Piper discussed the common set of problems affecting all industries they serve as well as the key differences among them. Two key solutions for all industries (such as pharmaceutical, chemical, life sciences, energy, and consumer goods) are collaboration and the predictive side of things with simulation and modeling. Sustainability is also affecting both the consumer goods and energy industries. “As long as there’s been business, there’s been business transformation,” Piper said. “How can we do that smarter?” One way is through doing fewer experiments and testing less, and instead using digital twins to gain new insights and figure out why something—whether it’s a new drug or laundry detergent—is or isn’t working. Industries are now also looking at things in a bigger picture way, from beginning to end. “The dreams that your executives have, you are making possible,” McCarthy told end users at the talk. “You are showing us how you want to transform your industries, and we are creating the means for doing so.”