The Laboratory – already 4.0 or still 0.4?
The comprehensive digital transformation of lab processes is currently still a pipe dream, as proprietary data and communication formats prevent free exchange of data. This has to change.
As centres of innovation in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, our laboratories are in the focus of the digital transformation. However, some of us are already tired of buzzwords such as Industry 4.0 in the laboratory context. In our day-to-day laboratory practice, isolated solutions still prevail, and the continuous digital transformation of processes is yet to come. Concepts for the laboratory of the future have been in progress for years. Nonetheless, their implementation is too often limited when the analysers’ proprietary interfaces and data formats make their flexible control or efficient data exchange more difficult. There is a lack of open communication protocols that allow analysis and laboratory equipment to work with each other and with robotic systems in a “smart” way.
There are remarkable models and pilot trials towards the laboratory of the future. These include the smartLAB initiative at the University of Hanover or nICLAS at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation in Stuttgart. Commercial drivers are LABforward or transcriptic, for example. Yet, some of these models are aimed at microbiological or biochemical laboratories and less at “harsh” use in chemistry.
Existing solutions are often based on proprietary data formats or custom interface programming. This needs to end now. A research, development, or analytics lab manager should be able to select a device independently from the manufacturer (“best-of-breed”). Devices need to be operable with other instruments and sensors, and be able to share their unreduced data with others freely – just “plug & play”. In consumer electronics, with their admittedly shorter lifecycles, this has been a reality for a long time.
Without more rigorous standardisation of data and communication formats, digital transformation of our laboratory processes is not possible. Innovative protocols such as OPC-UA and SiLA 2 take effect here. The Lab.Vision 2019 meeting brought together a group of interested manufacturers of analytical, bio and laboratory technology. They met to work together with users on new, open data and communication formats for laboratory equipment. I am very grateful for this groundbreaking initiative and would like to appeal to the entire laboratory community to engage in this discussion and actively help to shape that standard.
Perhaps the laboratory technology community can learn a lot from the process technology community, which has been driving the standardisation of automation technology in their field for almost seven decades within the framework of NAMUR and working together to benefit everyone.
Dr. Joachim Richert
is Vice President of the Competence Center Analytics at BASF SE in Ludwigshafen with 500+ employees and units in Asia, Europe and North America.