New Technology for the Smart Labs of the Future

Today, research laboratories often resemble a traditional manufacturing structure. Devices and processes are not connected and valuable samples are often processed manually by employees. For a long time, this system has been sufficient to maximise the innovative strength of laboratories. However, they now generate much more data than ever before and the familiar model cannot keep up with this increased complexity. At the Innovation Center for Laboratory Automation Stuttgart (nICLAS), Fraunhofer IPA and industry partners are developing new technologies for the smart laboratory of the future.

Currently, automated solutions have only been introduced in a small number of laboratories worldwide. One reason for this is the strict regulation as well as the sheer variety of everyday lab processes which are non-standardised. As nICLAS Project Leader, Mario Bott at Fraunhofer IPA, points out:

“Samples and products which are processed in laboratories are subject to strict quality requirements. Establishing new technologies is therefore expensive and time-consuming for companies.”

Additionally, the manual working environment of laboratories was advantageous for many years, as processes could be adapted more flexibly and quickly than would be the case with automated devices and platforms.

However, laboratories are becoming data factories and companies are gradually starting to rethink this, as Bott explains:

“Laboratories are increasingly turning into networked data factories which are an integral part of the company interface, be it diagnostic laboratories, the lead discovery for new drugs or quality control and product approval. They generate information which is extremely valuable for corporate management.”

Furthermore, laboratories are facing new challenges from the growing personalisation of products and processes via personalised diagnoses and therapies. In order to get to grips with emerging complexity, sustainable, modular solutions must be developed for hardware and software systems.

Additional developments in the research environment include virtual laboratories and networked research. The nICLAS FutureLab has already provided some initial stimuli and food for thought. For example, there are applications in the field of intralogistics for tracking materials. Project leader Bott explains:

“This means the position of valuable samples or patient material is always known. The digital record can be a great help for laboratory staff when it comes to planning, process monitoring and documentation.”

A second area of focus is human-machine interaction in regulated environments. The project team is investigating how augmented reality could be introduced to support regulated processes.

“In many laboratories, the central information and documentation interface is still a handwritten lab journal. With augmented reality, employees could in future be shown any necessary information when it is required and on a personalised basis.”

The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is providing start-up funding of over EUR 600,000 for nICLAS. Interested companies and research institutes are able to join the community to create the laboratory environment of tomorrow.

More information about nICLAS is available, here.

Photo credit: http://www.colourbox.com. Material used in the preparation of this article has been drawn from Fraunhofer IPA.

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