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?
ACHEMA Inspire: Are you optimistic?
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?
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?
ACHEMA Inspire: How important are cost considerations to a project like this?
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
ACHEMA Inspire: This represents a total rethink in other words?
ACHEMA Inspire: What are the other changes needed to make this happen?
| Original version published in ACHEMA Inspire, June 2021. |
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