Like flying cars, paperless labs are still aspirational, but plenty of other advances have made it off drawing boards and into research laboratories. And, even with the COVID-19 pandemic preoccupying researchers, continual technological advancements are coming.
Smart technology, artificial intelligence, miniaturization, and automation are becoming practical, streamlining life in the lab for managers and technicians alike. At the same time, the pressure to deliver results quicker is increasing. Labs, therefore, must be fast and agile. For lab managers, improving the purchasing process is a key way to increase efficiency. Knowing this, lab suppliers are trying to simplify product selection and ordering processes. Lab supplier Zageno is a case in point. It has been called the “Amazon of lab supplies”—that means lab managers can compare and purchase the vast majority of their supplies and equipment on one website, and deal with only one invoice.
To enable this, Zageno is building a community around lab automation, smart labs, and best practices. “We started by creating a community. Then, based on feedback, expanded it to provide the product data and related scientific references that our customers needed,” says David Pumberger, co-founder and chief product officer of Zageno. “We applied our algorithms and tools to extract scoring to help lab managers and their scientists make product selections. We call this the scientific score. It summarizes all the information around a product to give the user an indication of how well that product performs in the real world.”
Consequently, customers “can use our platform to identify and score products, and add products to [their] cart across the various suppliers on an ecommerce platform,” says Pumberger. Because the entire experience is integrated, it’s more efficient. In that regard, the site resembles Expedia, which compares various vendors’ pricing.
Apps and voice assistants
“Lab mangers need to communicate more effectively with the scientific staff,” Pumberger continues. “Aggregated email conversations and flip charts aren’t effective today. Instead, they need interconnected tools.”
One option is Notion, a new management app for iOS and Android. It’s designed for project management and everything else lab managers need to work efficiently, remotely. It offers drag and drop functionality, syncs across all devices, and helps managers handle spreadsheets, documents, calendars, Kanban boards, and Wikis, and enables real-time collaboration within a folderless, outline-style organization.
For bench scientists, “The industry is looking to develop some of the human technologies, like an ‘Alexa’ for the lab,” says David Joyce, product development director at Thermo Fisher Scientific. HelixAI, for example, offers an app that sets up Alexa as a voice assistant for life science and chemistry labs, using templates with commonly used phrases. It can manage inventory, relay steps in a protocol, access standard scientific references, and record notes. Several other voice assistants are being developed by other companies in the US and Europe.
Digital instrument connectivity
The challenge is deeper than just improving human communications or access protocols, though. Nonetheless, “the biggest trend happening across the life science industry is digitization,” says Aaron Hardin, CEO, Hardin Scientific. That’s the foundation for many of today’s innovations.
Scientists and their managers need ways for their instruments to share data with one another more effectively, too. Right now, a lot of the information that’s gathered by instruments is duplicated manually, which contributes to errors and slows the laboratory workflow. Initial efforts for instruments to share data electronically are resulting in island solutions, in which some pieces of equipment are connected and others are not. Connectivity is clearly increasing, but still has a long way to go.
“At Thermo Fisher,” Joyce says, “we ensure that a lot of our equipment is born digital.” Instruments and freezers can connect to the cloud or an internal server to share data. Consequently, lab mangers can monitor experiments, check operating parameters from their smart phones, and receive alerts as needed. Therefore, for example, if a freezer compressor fails, the manager is alerted in time to save its samples. Thermo Fisher’s Connect mobile app lets users monitor the company's qPRC and mass spec equipment as well as refrigerators. “In the near future, it will be able to connect to third-party equipment, too,” Joyce says.
Another innovation, Thermo Fisher’s OMNIC™ software for FTIR spectroscopy, lets large labs or research groups store data from all their spectroscopy equipment in one place for easier access, processing, and interpretation.
Optimizing data for AI
“We are just reaching the point where technology and deep learning are tools rather than theoretical concepts,” Hardin says. “Notes and observations can be fed into a neural network to discover patterns and relationships otherwise overlooked.” He’s talking about artificial intelligence (AI). It’s being used in many areas, but for academic labs, it remains a solution in search of an application. “Only a few algorithms have been written [specifically for these labs] and they suffer from inconsistent, error-filled databases,” adds Hardin.
To improve that situation, Hardin Scientific started cleaning data five years ago, when it began creating the data acquisition tools needed for AI to fulfill its potential. That project resulted in “a tree diagram depicting every major experiment that has been published in the past decade, complete with dependencies, supporting/unsupporting evidence, and insights,” he says. In individual labs, he says, his solution provides data on every experiment, so samples can be tracked in real time without additional user input. Consequently, scientists can get real-time images and data at the sample level, seeing, for instance, cell viability without opening their equipment.
This degree of digitization also makes it easier for lab managers to ensure instruments’ optimum operation. “Access to online maintenance records and calibration information lets them look at their fleet of instruments, check their maintenance status, and assess their utilization rates to determine what needs supplementation or what is being under-utilized,” says Joyce.
Related technologies, like augmented (also called mixed) reality are starting to make headway. “One of the first areas in which wearable technology (like artificial reality glasses) will be efficient is documentation support, to better understand steps and protocols and record results,” Pumberger predicts. It also can be invaluable in repairing equipment and getting expert advice based on what you’re seeing at the moment. University labs like CalTech are developing virtual reality and AR environments to visualize tumors, for instance.
Although digital solutions are becoming more robust, they don’t yet provide a single dashboard of data for all the instruments in the lab. For lab managers and equipment manufacturers alike, that remains aspirational. “It’s a problem of scale,” Joyce points out. “There are millions of instruments of varying ages, and many are not IoT enabled. It’s a terribly inhomogeneous environment.” A lot of standardization must occur to understand the data formats from multiple vendors and instruments before a single dashboard is feasible.
New instruments and options
“There also is a trend for smaller, easier-to-use instruments, with connectivity built in,” Pumberger says. A good user experience once was a luxury. Now it’s becoming a point of differentiation that is attracting users and helping instruments win awards. Double Helix introduced a module for widefield microscopes that enables intra- and inter-cellular 3D visualization at the nanoscale level. Called SPINDLE®, it provides X, Y, and Z information about cellular structures without interpolation. In 2019, SPINDLE won the International Society for Optics and Photonics’ (SPIE’s) Prism Award in diagnostics and therapeutics.
This year’s SPIE winner was the TERA-Fab E series beam pen lithography device. It uses up to 20,000 independently addressable pens to pattern surfaces with light, with resolutions below 200 nm. With it, researchers can stitch together fields over a 0.5 x 0.4 cm2 patterning area, to quickly fabricate photomasks and lithographically process photosensitive surfaces at the point of use, without a cleanroom.
BrandTech Scientific’s HandyStep® touch claims to be the first electronic repeating pipette with touchscreen operation and automatic tip ejection. The screen operates like a smartphone, letting users swipe to access functions, tap for integrated help functions, and always have important information within view.
Technology is improving rapidly, making some labs hesitant to invest and reluctant to lease. There is a third solution, however: hardware as a service (HaaS).
HaaS provides specific hardware, real-time monitoring and control, predictive maintenance AI, software, and unlimited cloud storage, maintenance, and technical support. Hardin says a monthly subscription eliminates the need to finance or lease equipment and then depreciate assets, while ensuring lab equipment remains up-to-date.
Speed, accuracy, agility, and efficiency are vital in life science labs today, and will become even more critical in the future. For lab managers, that means embracing technologies, like those mentioned here, to help their labs operate at high levels of efficiency.