Steady advances in technology have vastly improved the productivity, performance and predictability of scientific work in laboratories for life science organizations. But many challenges remain. Fragmented manual processes, isolated information systems, inconsistencies in methodologies and reliance on paper records can lead to inefficiencies and increased compliance risk.
To stay competitive, today’s life science firms need to implement systems for standardizing the processes that are followed during development, manufacturing and quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC). Standard processes are critical for establishing efficient lab environments, fostering communication among teams, and facilitating externalization for various parts of the development and manufacturing process.
Creating standardized processes, methodologies and data sets can help life science organizations overcome many of these perennial problems. Standardization can also pave the way for critical paradigm shifts by supporting emerging adjacent technologies such as augmented display, motion control and the automatic identification of lab materials, equipment and lab personnel.
In the future, these adjacent technologies will enable new ways of working in and around the laboratory. Companies will derive more value from their data and eliminate inefficiencies as they attain a more complete understanding of their processes.
ESTABLISHING THE FOUNDATION
Standardization of processes and data helps companies move forward by providing a consistent way for people in separate domains to communicate with each other — including R&D, QA/QC and activities with external partners. It also helps professionals across the enterprise understand prior activities by preserving the context associated with the data via process metadata. A better understanding of data yields knowledge that can be shared internally and with critical partners.
Such best practices are not years away. They are happening today in isolated pockets. They need to be applied consistently across the product lifecycle continuum, from initial research to commercialized products. Doing so will create a foundational platform supporting new adjacent technologies that have the potential to shift the paradigm for the way laboratory work is performed.
Imagine if everything and everyone in the lab had a unique identifier that is automatically read by the information system. When a scientist approached a piece of equipment, communication would begin automatically, with no manual scanning or data entry required. The system would identify the person and know what step is being performed in the context of the entire process. Work and results would be automatically monitored and recorded.
There would be fewer errors because the system would identify equipment, materials and personnel and verify that the correct steps are taken, the correct materials are used and that the equipment is calibrated and accurate. Inventory usage would be automatically documented, and the chain of custody of materials would be tracked. No manual verification would be required.
Enabling technologies such as augmented display, motion control and automatic identification all come into play here. But in order for these technologies to improve lab efficiency, there must be a standardized way of understanding people, materials, processes and equipment.
LEVERAGING ADJACENT TECHNOLOGIES
In the lab of the future, the foundational platform will work in harmony with new physical devices that are advancing very rapidly. The remainder of this article will discuss some of the most compelling examples of these adjacent technologies and explain how they could be applied to the life science industry. These technologies all exist today and are not expensive.
Motion Control: Motion-sensing input devices gained popularity in the consumer world by enabling people to interact with video games using physical gestures. Early motion controllers utilized gyroscopes to detect gestures. This technology has continued to evolve and become more advanced. Recent models have servo-based video sensing capabilities that can identify individual users by their facial features and other physical characteristics. They can also detect minute actions such as the movement of a fingertip.
As scientists and lab technicians follow processes and run experiments, they typically need to document their activities and record their observations. These activities require them to interact with physical devices such as pen and paper or a computer. The interaction takes time, interrupts workflow and introduces the potential for contamination. A worker may be wearing gloves or may be in a clean room or hood, making interaction with physical devices more difficult.
Using motion-sensing technology, a user can control the cursor on a computer screen by simply gesturing in the air without touching a mouse or keyboard. For example, in the course of weighing a sample, a technician could make a hand motion that tells the system to record the weight. It could be done intuitively, without adding extra thought to the process or breaking the workflow. Motion controllers can be trained to understand what lab personnel are doing. Just as with motion-controlled gaming, the system can recognize specific motions and gestures.
These techniques would be especially valuable when work must be performed in a ventilation hood. Usually the only things inside that hood are the sample, the person’s hands and the equipment. The scientist doesn’t want to remove his or her hands from the environment to write something down or to input data into a computer. If the steps can be recorded automatically via simple movements, the work can continue without interruption.
Similarly, work in a clean room typically requires people to interact with a computer that is on the other side of a glass wall. They can’t touch it. The cost of having the computer outside the clean room is much less than having it inside. Using motion control technology, lab professionals can interact with these computers simply by gesturing.