Occupational safety in the laboratory has always been a topic of importance, but concepts of sharing laboratory resources, and of laboratory digitization and automation are also becoming increasingly relevant. Similarly, in many laboratories, there is a growing need for more efficient use of existing workplace structures. Previously, a laboratory workstation was used permanently by the same laboratory worker, but today workstation allocation adapts to varying demand and changing tasks. As a result, some pioneering universities and research institutes are offering their resources internally for booking across working groups. This shift towards a shared economy for laboratory technology is currently driven by high investment costs demanding more efficient use of instruments.
The key to success for laboratories in the current climate appears to be centered in the modularization of laboratory resources and making these resources available to large cohorts of users. Companies like the Life Science Factory in Göttingen are already offering laboratory workstations as coworking areas, and consequently users have access to exceptional laboratory resources at optimized costs without their own laboratory infrastructure. This notion of making more efficient use of expensive laboratory infrastructure by widening availability reduces investment costs and strengthens sustainability. However, this change in laboratory management must be accompanied by the adoption of new habits by laboratory users, as day-to-day life in the laboratory will change.
The following sections will highlight existing solutions for current challenges in implementing this new approach to laboratory resource utilization, outlining their benefits and their potential.
Ideally, laboratory users will digitally pre-book the instruments required to complete a task for a defined period of time. At the time of booking, additional details concerning the task can be obtained to provide context for the booking. For example, when booking a laboratory workstation, the DESY "Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron DESY, a research center of the Helmholtz Association" asks its users to provide the following information: the date and time frame in which the laboratory environment will be used, the exact chemical composition of the samples, as well as the nature and scope of the tasks to be performed. Collecting this data ensures that the correct laboratory instruments and consumables are available for use at the time of the booking.
A platform to manage laboratory bookings already exists - Clustermarket offers a convenient booking system for scientific institutions, allowing laboratories to easily manage their resources. Equipment reservations can be canceled or rebooked, allowing laboratory users to freely adapt their plans to changing circumstances. Allowing users to effortlessly book the necessary instruments significantly simplifies the construction of a shared laboratory.
Integration of digital tools
Paper notebooks and standalone server-based systems are still common in R&D laboratories, creating operational inefficiencies. Digital tools, such as an equipment scheduling system, can rectify these efficiencies, but having multiple digital systems can also create additional workload for laboratory managers. Often, data created in digital tools is siloed and needs to be manually inserted into other tools used in the workflow. This leads to slow adoption of digital solutions in R&D laboratories and a disappointing experience for researchers.
To avoid these issues and ensure a smooth workflow, all tools implemented in a laboratory should be easily connected to other tools in use. This ensures a quick and smooth introduction to the tool and the best experience for the user. A digital tool like an instrument booking system, which everyone can easily access from their laptop or lab computer, helps have a clear picture of who has reserved a particular instrument and when. This makes it easier to coordinate schedules, avoid overlapping bookings and check equipment availability. The ability to message laboratory members to notify them of changes in schedules or to announce instrument maintenance is handy and lessens the admin work. Most importantly, if the data from the electronic laboratory notebook or inventory system used by the laboratory can be connected to the scheduling software, it can make the workflows smoother and the management of the laboratory easier.
Digitization of data collection
In addition to using digital methods to share laboratory resources, there are other laboratory processes which stand to benefit from digitization. Inconsistent processes and non-standard workflows mean that data is still entered manually. For the most part, it is still recorded in paper form and only typed up by hand later, creating a high opportunity for error. The formats in which the data is recorded are also limited to Excel or other comparable programs. The associated decentralized data storage leads to a low integration of the data into downstream analysis programs.
One solution is the "digital" laboratory, in which workflows are specified through screens - this ensures uniform test and analysis procedures, while also ensuring that all data is recorded and backed up in a structured manner. Later, evaluation can be carried out in almost any way. Solutions such as the Clustermarket booking software are optimally integrated here, as in addition to the ability to book instruments remotely, they offer integrations to other tools such as ELNs and inventory systems.
The organization of the laboratory workplace
Working without a fixed workstation requires a system that supports laboratory employees in setting up their workstation as quickly as possible for different tasks. This daily preparation may cause problems if it is too time-consuming, and therefore a workstation organizational system that can quickly and flexibly adapt to individual user requirements is needed.
The SmartRack® by Better Basics Laborbedarf provides a modular organization system which stores laboratory accessories in an adaptable, space-saving way. Each user can personalize their SmartRack® to their individual needs quickly, organizing their glassware, pipettes and other consumables in a secure and ergonomic manner. Providing such order to dynamic laboratory workstations improves laboratory work efficiency and accuracy, while also improving the safety of its users. The SmartRack® can be transported within and across laboratories using a SmartCase, which protects its contents from light and other damaging environmental influences. The atmosphere with the SmartCase can be altered by an external gas supply, enabling further safety precautions to be taken as needed. Organizational systems such as this create highly personalized, portable workstations, generating temporal and spatial flexibility within laboratories.
The solutions described give a rough outline of the great potential that can be tapped by a holistic use of laboratory structures, enhancing the efficiency and accuracy and laboratory processes, while also improving safety. For example, occupational safety could be significantly improved by standardization. Via a booking system such as Clustermarket, usage instructions for each instrument can be provided digitally and equipment access can be limited to trained users only. Additionally, using a uniform laboratory organization system such as the SmartRack®, which has standardized holders for laboratory glassware that can be used at any laboratory workstation, reduces the potential for errors and accidents.
A booking system that can record the use of consumables and laboratory equipment usage also aids in purchasing decisions – an opportunity for optimisation which has not been adopted by many so far. The intermediate storage of samples pre-analysis in a solution like the SmartCase also saves costs, as it frees up atmosphere-controlling instruments such as fume hoods for usage. The SmartRack® is also conducive to the possibility of automated laboratory work, as the defined positioning of equipment on the SmartRack is compatible with the use of robots for laboratory processes.
The design of laboratories is changing, and will continue to change significantly in the coming years. This is driven by a shift in focus towards increasing efficiency and flexibility, and is made possible by solutions such as Clustermarket and the SmartRack®. It is important that laboratories remain one step ahead of the inevitable changes in all areas of today's life, and as always, this starts with the willingness to recognise change as an opportunity.