The increasing complexity of laboratory processes and the growth of regulatory requirements are calling on lab scientists to make decisions on robotic systems, automation and digitalization, focusing their attention on the intelligent laboratory of the future.
Actually, digitalization of experiment and test results is not a new concept for labs. There are numerous examples where digital applications are being used, such as in imaging labs, where highly sensitive digital cameras have replaced probe detection with light-sensitive photo paper.
But what does Laboratory 4.0 mean for modern laboratories?
The digital revolution is already in motion and the digital age has become a reality for almost 20% of the large global companies. As part of this digitalization, modern laboratories face new challenges when it comes to managing vast amounts of data, which are produced from a wide variety of sources. In fact, with the advent of high throughput technologies, both the quality and quantity of information is increasing dramatically. Because digitalization is the central key to greater productivity, efficiency and flexibility, the time has come for everyone to think towards acquiring a carefully planned laboratory IT system and a good data network.
Numerous benefits are consistently observed when automating laboratory activities. Here are a few reasons why you should consider investing in more automation for your laboratory.
- More accurate results: manual entry is where the majority of errors occur. Robotic systems and machines are the best tools for eliminating human errors. As an example, if you have a hundred different samples to keep track of, you might be unable to stay on top of it all. By using an automated system, you can have the machines take care of sample preparation, allowing you to easily track each sample and decreasing the chances of losing or misplacing any single specimen.
- Reduction in costs: the automated lab can take on additional workloads without increasing staffing levels. Though automation tools can be expensive in the short-term, they save you money in the long-term. This is because machines not only do more than a human can in a given amount of time, they also find defects quicker. This allows the lab staff to react more quickly, saving both precious time and money.
- Increased employee satisfaction: the lab staff are able to work on more impactful applications when the burden of repetitive and tedious activities are removed. Automating some simple tasks can give the staff members the time they need to pursue more productive tasks such as analyzing research data, looking up new techniques, or developing alternative approaches to their work.
- Faster results: with automation the lab staff can set up, run, and analyze the results of tests and experiments in a fraction of the time they needed in the past. This is a particular relevant benefit especially for production laboratories, which – being subject to the pressures of the free market – demand ever-shorter time to results.
- Flexibility and interdisciplinary: the trend toward globalization has a particular impact on research laboratories that are often characterized by multisite collaboration. This means that those collaborating on a project must coordinate data and results reported from several sites, exchanging information in a standardized way. This is the case where, for example, cloud storage could be an essential requirement so that the results can be shared.
All laboratories, regardless of their size and type, can benefit from some level of automation. At a first glance, implementing an automation system may appear complex, but that is not always the case. In fact, it often can be relatively simple. For example, laboratories that are interested in automating their analytical processes usually need only perform a basic process analysis. This includes studying current performance, identifying specific processes that lead to potential errors, and devising specific ways to reduce manual processes. On the other hand, laboratories that want to implement more advanced levels of automation for peak efficiency may benefit from additional tools like smart materials with sensors and actuators (e.g. for emergency cooling) or lab furniture with functional surfaces and integrated instruments and devices, including robotic systems.