Instrumentation drives today's Lab of the Future: continuingcomputational enhancements are expected to drive development of longer term changes in the way researchers work in the lab.
Part of this slow rate of change is because of the structural and physical limitations of existing lab infrastructures. Overall lab structures--the benches, casework, fume hoods and utilities--have not changed significantly in size, shape or operation in the past 40 years. Fume hoods have obviously become more efficier with integrated controls, electronics, new chemically resistant materials and sophisticated air flow characteristics; but even here, it's been a relatively slow process with a large number of researchers resisting changes in air flow rates or ductless operation citing safety concerns.
Research labs see step changes in their operations mostly when they arecompletely renovated, or designed and constructed anew. The PKAL report relatescomputer technologies to having a large effect in creating the LOF. "Computing power has been the single largest contributor to the growth and advancements in science," according to the report, which reflects on the massive collection and analysis of data possible on a 40-TFlop supercomputer at the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee. Unfortunately, the vast number of industrial research labs that currently exist don't operate in thiscomputing stratosphere.
According to reader surveys performed by the editors of Laboratory Equipment in November 2011 and earlier, the technology that will have the greatest effect on research labs over the next five years--the short-term LOF--is analytical instrumentation, which was picked by more than half of the survey respondents. Augmented reality and super-computing were the lowest of the 33 choices provided in the 2011 survey, with only 1 and 2% of the respondents choosing these technologies, respectively. Mass spectrometry, the current detector of choice by a large number of researchers, was the technology picked by the second largest number of survey respondents--25%. Data search (22%), microscopy and imaging systems (21%), electronics (21%) and nanotechnology (20%) were secondarily clustered as technologies with significant effects in the next five years.
Relatively popular technologies like social media (4%), visualization (3%) and even neuroscience (4%) were all selected by relatively few survey respondents, reflecting the narrow applications these technologies have in the current lab environment.
A reflection of the current economic climate was noted in the survey respondents' selection of the greatest challenges for their research work in the next five years--the top two being costs (selected by 56% of the survey respondents) and funding (46%). Energy use (7%) andcomputational issues (6%) were the two topics expected to present the smallest challenges in thecoming years.
Looking at this same question asked to Laboratory Equipment readers in 2010 and 2009, a few trends were noted. In both previous surveys, research lab costs and research funding were the top two choices by the survey respondents--at about the same response level (within acceptable statistical errors). Staffing, instrumentation and regulations were also the next clustering of responses for the previous two surveys, except at a noticeably higher response rate in previous years, reflecting short-term challenge concerns that are not as great in today's lab environment. In fact, all of the remaining responses were significantly higher in 2009 and 2010 with the exception of sustainable operations and safety and security, which were at approximately the same levels in all three years (12% for both items in all three surveys).
In terms of non-technology items, survey respondents indicated the general economy (52%) as having the greatest effect (positive or negative) in the next five years. This was followed by lab capabilities (44%) and staffing (42%). Global warming was picked by the fewest number of survey respondents (2%).
Focusing on the area that most researchers expect to have the greatest effect on their lab operations--analytical instrumentation--the survey respondents picked automation systems and data acquisition systems as the top two specific areas where they expect to see moderate to significant changes over the next five years (68% of the survey respondents picked each of these two items). Detectors and sensors (62%), mass spectrometers (48%) and liquid chromatography systems (43%) were the instruments picked by the next largest number of survey respondents.
Reflecting on mature designs where no real technological changes are expected over the next five years were freezers (54% of the survey respondents expected no technology changes), fume hoods (53%), ovens and furnaces (52%), washers and sterilizers (47%), vacuum systems (46%), incubators (46%), biosafety cabinets (44%), pipettes (44%) and titration systems (42%).
In prior studies over the past several years, a trend of lab workers spending less time in the lab and more time at acomputer or in a meeting has been increasingly evident. However, in this year's survey, the trend reversed itself slightly, denoting that more researchers expect to spend increased time in the lab in the future than they have in the past (and fewer researchers will decrease their lab time). The three surveyscompared (2009, 2010 and 2011) had astonishingly similar numbers except in this one area. The reversal was confirmed again in a higher number of respondents indicating no change in their lab work habits than did their counterparts in previous years. (The number of survey respondents in all three surveys was similar--about 300 responses in each survey--and as such considered to be statistically significant).
Survey respondents indicated throughout the entirety of this year's survey that analytical instrumentation remains the greatest expected change in the LOF. In another question concerning the changes made to their lab facilities during the past five years, respondents overwhelmingly indicated that they had installed new lab equipment (57% of the respondents). The next closest changes involved upgrading the lab (26%), expanding the lab (18%) and building a new lab (16%). Obviously, making major structural or design changes to a lab is much more difficult, dramatic and costly than just installing new equipment; but the trend is nevertheless confirmed.
When asked what they expect to do to improve their research capabilities in the next five years, nearly half (49%) of all the researcher survey respondents indicated they would purchase and install new lab instrumentation. The next closest selections were to implement new technologies (47%), upgrade existing labs (42%), modify the labs for new projects (32%), increase technical staff (26%) and form partnerships or collaborations (25%).
It should be noted that since the PKAL survey was performed, there has been a significant increase in the electronic networking of laboratories, researchers and lab offices--communication between these different locations has been increased both in volume and speed. While still not at the level that software developers had hoped for, even the implementation of laboratory information management systems (LIMS) has slowly increased in no small part because oi the increased networking now possible. Apple's iPhones, iPads and other similar devices with their associated application programs will continue to increase this networking andcommunication connectiveness.
It should also be noted that the instrumentation systems illustrated in this article have all been introduced within the past several months and exhibit expanded capabilities because of the continuing evolution of electronic upgrades,computer-aided design and modeling and embedded microprocessing. The instruments have enabled new performance attributes and faster sample processing. In most cases, the overall size of the instrumentation has not been dramatically downsized, but the performance has been expanded.
There are, of course, dramatic changes in instrumentation either now available or soon to be available that are "game changers." The ePetri dish developed by researchers at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, for example, is a chip-scale lens-free microscopy platform that can automatically perform high-resolution microscopy imaging over a large field-of-view. Unlike other lens-less microscopy methods, this design approach is fully capable of working with cell cultures or any samples in which cells or bacteria may be contiguously connected, and thus, can significantly improve Petri dish-based cell/bacteria culture experiments. In this process, cultures or cells of interest are placed directly on the surface of a CMOS image sensor and light is focused on the sample to acquire a sequence of raw images that are then processed andcombined to create high-resolution images.
On the other side, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently created a strategic plan for modernizing lab operations like toxicology, clinical studies and the decisionmaking process to help speed innovations for improving the overall safety and effectiveness of medical and health-related products, thus accelerating changes within the lab environment as well. Some of these FDA changes will employ the use and development ofcomputational models and in silico modeling techniques to create a morecomprehensive database of information upon which to base final decisions. This reflects back on forecasts made in the PKAL report and reinforces their conclusions thatcomputational-based systems will be major drivers for change within the LOF.
As for the industrial sector, in 2010 Novartis created its "labs of the future" program, which changes the overall dynamics of researchers operating within their labs to be more open and interactive. The organizational structure of the Novartis labs has been reinforced with video conferences, smart whiteboards that allow notes to be captured electronically and haptic interfaces. They've also already implemented virtual reality rooms with high-resolution video screens that allow researchers to participate in interactive global discussions. While this is a unique environment and not for the average research lab, it's a start to the promises asserted, in the PKAL report.
Biggest Challenges for Researchers Respondents Costs 56% Funding 46% Staffing 31% Instrumentation 30% Regulations 29% Competition 26% Lab Size 19% Pace of Technology Changes 19% Automation 17% Projectcomplexity 14% Time to Market 13% Sustainable Operation 11% Training 11% Safety and Security 10% Energy Use 7% Computational 6% Source: Laboratory Equipment Note: Table made from bar graph. How Researcher' Use of Time Will Change Over the Next Five Years Increase Decrease Stay the Same At acomputer 61% 2% 37% Out if the Building/Travel 23% 24% 53% In Meetings 49% 12% 39% In the Office 44% 16% 40% In the Lab 31% 24% 45% Source: Laboratory Equipment Note: Table made from bar graph. Changes Made to R&D Facilities in the Past Five Years Opened Offshore Lab 3% Closed Lab 2% Installed New Equipment 57% Upgraded Lab 26% Expanded Lab 18% Consolidated Lab 11% Built New Lab 16% No Changes 28% Source: Laboratory Equipment Note: Table made from bar graph.