Intelligent, network-integrated laboratory of the future - Lab 4.0

Often referred to as Industry 4.0, digitalization and networking continue to spread throughout every sector of the economy. Convergence of the physical and virtual worlds is progressing faster in some industries than others. In general, laboratories have not kept pace with current developments. Much work remains to be done on strategies, infrastructure, equipment and technology, to say nothing of IT environments and process automation. Labs now find themselves in catch-up mode across the board.

In the lab of the future, systems and technologies will communicate autonomously, and process flows will be automated. Safety cabinets, for example, will detect overflow in collection tanks and communicate with other fixtures and equipment. Cameras will be able to control lab equipment and process sequences. Intelligent modules will switch equipment on and off. To an ever increasing extent, control of process flows will be based on peer-to-peer communication between lab equipment. This is the vision behind Lab 4.0.

Goal: development and standardization of innovative lab technologies

The German national smartLAB innovation network intends to make the vision of the intelligent, network-integrated Lab 4.0 a reality. Funding is being provided by the German Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) under the national SME innovation program (ZIM).  Approximately 20 companies and institutions have joined forces in the network:  Eppendorf AG, Fraunhofer-Institut für Produktionstechnik und Automatisierung (IPA), Herr M, iTiZZiMO, Köttermann, labfolder, Lorenscheit, LUPYLED, PreSens Precision Sensing, Sartorius, Schmidt + Haensch, Zühlke Engineering and Deutsche Messe AG. The project is being managed by the Institute of Technical Chemistry at Leibniz University Hannover.   “smartLAB gives us the opportunity to work with others to make the vision of tomorrow’s laboratory a reality. Information sharing between companies and with customers on site generates valuable stimulus for future projects," said Dr. Tanja Musiol, Portfolio Management Marketing Project Manager at Eppendorf AG.

The goal of the network is to drive development and standardization of innovative lab technology along with the associated applications and solutions. The intended outcomes include simplified process flows, better quality, higher efficiency and enhanced process reliability. A lab environment which meets all of these needs will require components and functionalities which work together, and robotic systems will perform many of the manual tasks. “The future, including the future of the lab, lies in the interactive combination of dynamic, digital networking, automation, robotics, intelligent surfaces and state-of-the-art designs and strategies,” claimed Dr. Simon Bungers, CEO of labfolder and spokesperson for the smartLAB Group.

The intelligent lab of the future in Hannover

A Lab 4.0 prototype is on display in Hannover. It is called smartLAB, and it was unveiled as a visionary model lab in 2015 at the LABVOLUTION laboratory technology show.

smartLAB breaks new ground visually and in what goes on behind the scenes. The fact that smartLAB does not have tables and lab benches immediately catches the eye. Instead it is made up of individual hexagonal honeycomb modules, each 90 centimeters high. This saves space and adds significant flexibility for the lab layout. The list of innovative features includes network-enabled devices, automation, robotics, surfaces with weighing and measuring functionality, 3D printers and data-enabled goggles which can issue instructions and raise an alarm if necessary. The real breakthrough technology in smartLAB is the interaction between the different devices and equipment and the specially-developed software. Lab 4.0 is completely network-integrated, something which has been the exception in real-world lab environments. "The smartLAB project serves as a model for the lab sector not just in Germany, but in the rest of the world as well," observed Dr. Thomas Scheper, Head of TCI.  “In smartLAB, the various technological components are network-connected, providing digital support for all workflows. This simplifies operations and enhances safety and reliability.”

Government officials have been impressed with the intelligent lab of the future. “smartLAB is a prime example of research excellence in Lower Saxony,” said Lower Saxony Economics Minister Olaf Lies. “smartLAB merits support above all because partners from business and the research community are creating network-integrated solutions which could well change the way labs operate in the future." The Lower Saxony Ministry for Science and Culture and the Labor and Transportation Ministry are providing funding for the project. smartLAB is on permanent display at the Deutsche Messe Technology Academy on the Hannover Fair Grounds and can be used for company presentations and training.

nICLAS Innovation Center for Lab Automation in Stuttgart

Fraunhofer IPA, in conjunction with partners from industry, is also developing new technologies for tomorrow's smart lab. The scene of the action is the nICLAS Innovation Center in Stuttgart. The list of active contributors includes industrial users and developers as well as partners who build bridges to the research and education sector. ”Given the broad scope of the task, a multi-disciplinary team is needed to successfully compete on the international stage. We are pleased to have highly capable partners from industry such as Precise Automation, Tecan, Liconic, Thermo Fisher Scientifc, Promega and Festo on board, who make leading-edge equipment and innovative technology available to us,” reported nICLAS Project Manager Mario Bott from Fraunhofer IPA.

The background is as follows. Automation is a priority at only a small minority of labs worldwide. This is due to strict regulations and multi-variant, non-standardized process flows in day-to-day operations. “The samples and products in the lab must meet extremely stringent quality criteria. Introduction of new technologies costs companies a lot of time and money," explained Mario Bott.  Also, the manual nature of the work performed in the labs was long regarded as an advantage, because it was seen as being faster and more flexible.

On the road to the network-integrated data factory

A mind shift is now taking place at many companies. “To an increasing extent, labs situated at central company interfaces are being transformed into data factories, functioning as diagnostic labs or for lead discovery in new medication development, quality assurance and product release. They generate information which is extremely valuable for managing the company,” stressed Mario Bott. “Not only that, increasing product and process personalization based on personalized diagnostics and therapy is creating new challenges for labs. Development of long-term, modular hardware and software solutions is essential for managing the future complexity. This is where nICLAS comes in.”

Cooperative R&D delivers results

nICLAS FutureLab is already providing some initial impetus and food for thought. Intelligent tracking is one example.

A tracking system was developed at Fraunhofer IPA which automatically documents and analyzes hand movements using 3D image analysis.  A 3D camera mounted above a sterile bench records employee hand movements and transmits the data live to an information system. The information is then analyzed with the aid of motion recognition algorithms, classified and recorded in a log. The system accurately captures and logs every single process step without missing anything. This saves time, reduces employee workloads and delivers better results. This approach also has another advantage. The tracking system runs on simple hardware and software, making it suitable for small labs.

TeachIT, another solution developed by the researchers at IPA, also saves time in day-to-day lab operations. Lab robots can be set up very quickly using automatic teach-in. To support that, barcodes are applied to multi-well plates on the work surface. A 3D camera on the robotic arm detects the markings and shows the robot where to grip.

SiLA uniform standards initiative

The equipment in many biotechnology, pharmaceutical and diagnostic labs is highly specialized and heterogeneous. The underlying IT infrastructure has usually evolved over time, making coordination between the various devices difficult or impossible. This creates the need for device drivers and platforms which comply with uniform standards. Because they can communicate with products from any other manufacturer, they support integration of heterogeneous components.

To provide a uniform basis for development of IT lab automation solutions for the labs of tomorrow, system manufacturers, software service providers, system integrators, pharmaceutical producers and biotechnology companies are working together in the SiLA Initiative (Standardization in Lab Automation) on a set of definitive standards. The goal of the initiative is seamless integration of lab equipment and IT systems sourced from different suppliers. Standardized communication interfaces, device drivers and lab consumables will be needed to accomplish that. Highly specialized experts from members of the non-profit consortium are organized into technical working groups where they are jointly developing definitive standards. According to Fraunhofer IPA which is also a member of the SiLA consortium, new equipment and components will require SiLA conformity certification. The institute offers up-front consultancy as well as automated conformity testing and certification.



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