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The word laboratory stems from the latin word laborare, which literally means ‘to labor’. For far too long, scientific laboratories have been centers of painstaking, laborious efforts to get results. That’s where a lab of the future truly differs.
A lab of the future represents the technologies that will enable researchers to work more efficiently. The idea behind this “lab of the future” concept, also known as “smart lab” or “lab 4.0”, is to make laboratories more efficient by implementing technologies that accelerate a digital transformation and reduce time to market.
Labs of the future enable the scientific community and industry to make innovative ideas and discoveries their focal point.
From integrating physical and virtual technologies, to automated processes and robots, to centralized data management systems, labs of the future will be digital, sustainable, predictive, and so much more. On a practical level, time to market will reduce, supply chain issues will subside, and laboratories will be safer.
For both industrial and academic institutions, science really comes down to teamwork. However, in this day and age, teams are spread across the globe, making it harder and harder to remain in sync.
Labs of the future will allow labs to work together as one, connected network. In an industry that depends on collaboration and speed, labs of the future will facilitate both from the ground up.
Scientists love to ask questions and, surely, the question on everyone’s mind is: “How does a lab become a lab of the future?”
This article outlines a simple, three-step approach to successfully navigating the transition to becoming a lab of the future. As with any scientific endeavor, challenges arise along the way, but this article will highlight the common pitfalls to avoid.
The best thing an organization can do to become a lab of the future is to establish the purpose behind their transformation early on. Why is a change needed? What will the change look like? How can we plan to make this change a reality? What can be achieved through this transformation?
Once a purpose is defined, an organization can begin investigating its processes and mapping those to potential solutions. Labs should screen the current and vast technological-solution landscape to identify which solution will work best for their vision.
Although the prospect of labs of the future can be exciting, they require thoughtful preparation. To become a lab of the future is an enormous endeavor for any organization. That being said, labs do not need to change overnight to begin making this shift happen.
Start small, but think big.
Begin with small and simple changes that will unite people, data, and projects. One of the easiest ways to commence digitalization is to start with an electronic lab notebook, rather than a physical one. This subtle optimization can drastically change how researchers work.
The lab of the future concept can be quite daunting if it’s approached with an ‘all or nothing’ mentality. Instead, organizations should opt for small, technological solutions that will turn into stepping stones on their way to becoming labs of the future.
As a lab embarks on this lab of the future journey, staying on the right track can be tricky. Nevertheless, thoughtfully reflecting on how people fit into this process, before taking irreversible steps, is a highly recommendable practice.
Prior to igniting the change, it’s prudent to build a team within the organization that solely focuses on this lab of the future transformation. Since science is about teamwork, make this transformation about the team.
Establishing a common understanding about the upcoming change will facilitate the cultural shift necessary to transform into a lab of the future.
The entire scientific institution is evolving, so cultivating a growth mindset will set laboratories up for success. Take the electronic notebook example, this simple shift from a private to a more public format of note-taking could translate into numerous benefits for an organization.
Researchers in labs of the future can focus less on the administrative element and more on the science itself. The considerable amount of laboratory data will be connected in one place, meaning research can simultaneously become more efficient and less expensive.
Scientific research is notoriously expensive, so the significance of digital solutions that could alleviate an organization’s monetary burden cannot be overstated.
Regardless of the type of solution labs implement to become a lab of the future, there will inevitably be setbacks. That’s why this initial process of organizational reflection and investigation can be so helpful.
Remember the age-old expression: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Another key element in this preparatory phase is leadership. The right leadership will embrace change and encourage team members to try something new. Their “North Star” is the organization’s unique lab of the future vision.
After a lab has laid the preparatory foundation, the next big step is finding the right partner to help steer the ship. A partner is an external company that labs can bring in to facilitate their digitalization process from start to finish.
External partners have the potential to make a lab’s overall transformation easier, faster, and cheaper. However, success is correlated to the quality of the partnership. Every organization should ensure that their potential partner has a proven track record of success bringing new technological solutions into an existing lab.
This partnership is no different from any other relationship, it requires chemistry and a lot of hard work. As with any relationship, not all partners are the right match.
The wrong partner can hinder labs on this journey by implementing a system that is not a good fit. In turn, the big picture and long-term goals quickly take a backseat as siloed-solution thinking returns, only in a more modern laboratory context.
Whereas, the right partner can support labs by harmoniously integrating new systems that work for their specific needs. The ideal partner ensures that the lab group keeps the big picture in mind as they work towards becoming a lab of the future.
One downside to external partners is that not all organizations have the means to invest in this relationship, particularly academic ones. Is it feasible for lower-funded organizations to become labs of the future? Yes. Will it be harder without an external partner? Also, yes.
Even if an external partner is out of reach, an affordable digital solution is not.
Labs that have consciously avoided taking steps towards digitalization, due to a lack of funding in the past, will have to reconcile that, sooner or later, labs of the future will be the present. There’s no better time than now to step into the modern scientific world.
Science is most powerful when people come together with the right technologies to innovate. However, this is much easier said than done. The scientific process is a very time-consuming business.
Yet, life sciences companies are facing more pressure than ever before to get products out to market at a quicker rate.
Consequently, R&D departments are being pushed to innovate even faster. However, any scientist will attest that the scientific process takes time. It’s a cyclical trial and error exercise. Innovation cannot be rushed, but maybe it can be sped up.
If the labs that support R&D departments subscribed to the “lab of the future” concept, the entire innovation process would be more efficient. In the long run, the relationship between R&D departments and labs could become more symbiotic.
Labs of the future represent so much more than their laundry list of potential benefits. A lab of the future stands for a scientific revolution. For industrial and academic organizations alike, this revolution could completely change the way they work in their labs.
Will this lab of the future revolution change labs for the better? That all depends on the organization’s ability to start with a purpose, to focus on their organizational culture, and to find the right partner as they embark on this journey.