12/03/2021 | Lab Innovation

Interview with Dr Felix Lenk | SmartLab Systems

Dr Felix Lenk’s work with the SmartLab systems research group at Dresden University has attracted much interest. I asked him for a progress report ahead of his Pulse address.


Laboratories have rarely been under such pressure in order to produce results, with interpreting and analysing a seemingly endless number of samples and generating massive amounts of data in the process, all of which are needed at speed and with a constant expectation of quality. And with those pressures only likely to increase, there is a growing realisation that antiquated processes that rely on such tools as written documentation will not be enough in a world demanding smart responses. That’s why Dr. Felix Lenk and his team at Dresden University of Technology have been working for some time on their SmartLab project, a term he insists sums up the sort of technologies needed to drive the laboratory of the future, one that can embrace effectively elements such as device networking, collaborative robotics and user interaction, among others. Dr Lenk and his ten-strong interdisciplinary research group have set themselves a goal of bridging the gap between biology and technology. But, as he explains, that means a lot more than simply buying new equipment. Working in modular and flexible ways means a change in mindset on many levels.

When previously asked about the current state of digitalisation in laboratories he described a five-tier process which begins with sensors that record short-latency and high-frequency processes to those at the higher end that make the data “human-interpretable” and able to answer direct questions. He said at the time that we are currently somewhere between tiers one and four. I spoke to him recently for an update on where we are now and what lies ahead.

ACHEMA Inspire: How far away are we from your vision of a digital laboratory?  

  • __Dr Felix Lenk: From my perspective we are on a good wave and there are a lot of companies that have started thinking about how to transform their traditional labs into the digital lab of the future, but at the moment there only a few examples available where you can really see the complete transformation.

ACHEMA Inspire: Are you optimistic?

  • __Dr Felix Lenk: Absolutely. This has got a new movement due to Coronavirus. A lot of labs have really been forced to push their digitalisation forward but they have certain issues. They need to make sure that once a lab technician or researcher is in the lab, it’s just to perform the experiment and not as it was before where they could work on preparation or hold meetings. Now we have to remove anything which is superficial to the experiment itself. On the other hand, if you are unable to go to the lab, you need the ability to remotely access your experiments or look at the data and that’s what the digitalisation of the lab enables you to do.

ACHEMA Inspire: As recent events have shown, the modern laboratory is under increasing pressure to produce ever more in terms of both quality and quantity. Is that a real dichotomy and how do we rationalise that?  

  • __Dr Felix Lenk: What we have experienced in the past couple of years is very much a growth in the number of samples when it comes to things such as water inspection, food inspection and pharmaceutical testing. There are not only more samples needed, but more experiments to be carried out. The inspection process of the experiments themselves are getting more complex from one round to another and the devices for it are getting more complex, so the only way out is to think lab 4.0, which means three things: digitalisation, automation and miniaturisation. Miniaturisation means you have the same space, but you need to make sure your devices get smaller. Automation means more throughput. Digitalisation means more quality where in the end even the documentation gets completely automated.

ACHEMA Inspire: On a personal level, you work with a multi-faceted group in terms of scientific disciplines. How does that help in your stated aim of bridging the biology-technology gap?

  • __Dr Felix Lenk: In terms of bringing researchers in my group together we really benefit from the broad cross-disciplinary skills. We have chemists, we have process engineers, we have automation control engineers and this variety gives us input from their fields, not only from a study perspective, but also from the ability to look from different perspectives at a problem, bringing the engineering accent out of it and helping each other to bring up the most effective solutions.

ACHEMA Inspire: How important are cost considerations to a project like this?

  • __Dr Felix Lenk: What research shows us is that laboratory workplaces are among the most expensive on the planet. So it’s absolutely important to look at how to bring down the cost and also still ensure that new drugs or bio-processes are conversely feasible.

When you are transforming a lab you have to think about investing a lot of money, but if you are setting up a laboratory in a more traditional style, you put the benches and the fume hoods and the laminar flow boxes in place and they usually stay there for 30 years. Typically, a project outlook right now in a commercial laboratory is between two to three years and after that it’s just a matter of luck whether the infrastructure still fits or not. It has to be expensively refitted or changed and with our idea to bring a flexible and modular lab, it can organically grow with your needs.

ACHEMA Inspire: Tell, us more about the IX hexagonal-shaped laboratory system

  • __Dr Felix Lenk: You start with an empty space where you have all the incoming [elements such as] compressed air, gas, water and you start with a small island of, let’s say, seven elements and parts of it are mobile and there you have integrated devices and that line-up of devices comprises your workflow. If another researcher comes by and needs two devices from that workflow, they simply extract them, put them into a new context, share the infrastructure with you and carry out their own experiments. So you can transform that infrastructure to fit your needs and scale up or down as you like. And if you need to transit from a biology lab to a chemical lab, you can change parts of your infrastructure, due to the modules you can put together to form your workflow and not have this passive and fixed infrastructure.

ACHEMA Inspire: This represents a total rethink in other words?

  • __Dr Felix Lenk: Absolutely. It also has other positive aspects. For example, collaboration in explorative labs is a very big issue and technically not do-able in traditional labs where you have a bench and cabinets sitting on top of them and you cannot look at the other researchers.  If you are working in a very modular environment, you have those colleagues sitting at other stations sharing their devices with you and, also, there may be a robotic arm sitting in the middle. This forms a completely new work environment and one that might inspire you towards new inventions or new discoveries.

ACHEMA Inspire: What are the other changes needed to make this happen?

  • __Dr Felix Lenk: The most important thing in this set up is to understand [the need for] a wide range of companies working together, knowing each other with interfaces that match up and bringing the hurdle down at the start.
    What you currently experience when you start a digitisation process is you simply go to a software company and say I want to digitalise my lab. And they say, OK, we can help you. Then you realise you need to change your devices, you need to change your workflows, you need to change your infrastructure and then the software company says, ‘oh, I’m sorry we’re just a software company,we can’t help you with that’.
    But if the software company is part of this SmartLab ecosystem, they simply point to a company they know and have set up interfaces with and they can say, ‘OK, you need to change your devices let’s go to them’ - or they go to a full service provider and say ‘I want to purchase a completely digitalised lab’ – from the idea right to the end product. This means forming a completely new branch of companies, not selling software or components or devices but selling the complete solution and not leaving the customer alone with the problems.

| Original version published in ACHEMA Inspire, June 2021. |


ACHEMA Inspire staff

World Show Media


Keywords in this article:

#smartlab, #digital lab, #robotics

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