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Turning Your Lab into a Transformer

If everything in a lab gets attached to walls or the floor, evolving lab requirements and processes require ramshackle solutions. But what if things could move around? That’s what flexible casework allows.

Mike May, PhD

Mike May is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas.

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Photo credit: Greg PremruKevin Chriswell, a senior laboratory planner at US-based CRB, a company that can design and build labs for academic or commercial clients, says, “I always promote flexibility in casework with our clients, because of the rate of change, especially at more commercial institutions, such as in the pharmaceutical industry.” He adds, “They are constantly changing out facilities.” With flexible casework, labs can be reconfigured for new uses as needed.

Fortunately, various vendors supply selections of flexible options. In Brantford, Canada, for instance, Mott Manufacturing creates a range of pieces that provide flexibility in a lab’s layout, including moveable benches and mobile carts. In addition, Mott’s overhead service carriers make it easier to rearrange a lab and still get air, electricity, and gas where they are needed.

Also, Workstation Industries in Santa Ana, California, works with customers to create flexible options. This company’s owner, Albert Cappello, says, “We try to fulfill as many drawer configurations and storage options as possible to fit a customer’s space.”

When designing a new lab or totally renovating an existing lab, think about your options as early as possible. “There are multiple types of flexible casework,” Chriswell says, “and getting it in the design early might allow options that are difficult to get in the budget if added later.” In fact, some labs work with such fast-paced science that Chriswell and his colleagues might need to change the layout during the building process. In those cases, the more flexible the casework can be, the better.

Mind the management

Beyond the space and rearranging it, lab managers need to consider other things that must move with the casework. For instance, Cappello says, “We provide lots of flexibility in wire management.” He adds, “If you deal with fixed casework, you have to either build in wire management below the shelving or drill holes to do it underneath.” His company’s flexible casework locates a wire-management trough above the shelves on the frame upright. With this, Cappello says, “People can work on the wire management standing up rather than lying down on the floor.” He adds, “For optimum ergonomic value [to] the user and the facility maintenance personnel, the location of the wire management system is important.”

That future flexibility, though, can cost more up front. “There’s a little bit of a price premium on flexible casework,” Chriswell says, “but the cost-benefit analysis pays off over the years.”

In the case of an existing traditional lab—say, with side benches and an island bench—some flexible options can still be added. “You could keep the fixed casework along the perimeter, especially for wet benches,” Chriswell says, “but you can easily take out the island and replace it with a flexible one.”

Chriswell worked with one client with fixed casework that was removed, refinished, and reinstalled in a new fixed plan. That’s not what most people think of as flexible, but there’s always a range of options.

Given the changes in science in the past few years, it appears inevitable that even faster changes could be required ahead. Flexibility in casework—from spacechanging options to rerouting or adding wires—will allow labs to adapt as needed. The more mobile the pieces can be, the more a lab can morph from one use to another.

For additional resources on flexible casework, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit