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August 8, 2022

Digitization in R&D laboratories

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Digitization is increasingly impacting every industry, with research and development being no exception. For smart labs and digital transformation, there are many aspects that impact how easy and convenient it will be to integrate digital tools into your workflows and optimize your labs’ processes with their help. To help us answer some of the most important questions on digital transformation and integration, we have invited Rory Macneil, the CEO of ResearchSpace, to discuss digital tools and integrations in an episode of our podcast (listen to it here). 

In this blog we discuss:

  • The importance of going digital
  • The complex process of digital transformation in an R&D lab
  • The benefits and challenges of implementing digital tools
  • Choosing the best tools for your laboratory
  • The importance of lab culture for the adoption of digital tools

Improving efficiency and optimizing workflows

When it comes to streamlining laboratory processes such as inventory, note-taking, and scheduling of resources, many managers still rely on outdated methods such as notepads and spoken word. Even though these trusted methods have worked well in the past, in the digital age there are many more convenient solutions available to ease daily tasks and save workload. “It’s an incredibly dynamic field I think and no matter how fast the technology develops, the needs seem to be a little bit ahead” - mentioned Rory - “so if you’re trying to develop tools that are relevant to the needs of the current R&D labs you are always playing catch-up to some extent, and there are always new challenges”. Embracing technology in R&D laboratories ensures that processes are optimized and errors are minimized. In the modern age, digitization can make laboratories more efficient and well-integrated tools can simplify workflows.

Scientific laboratories oftentimes feel the pressure to produce results at an accelerated pace as well as having to ensure that daily operations are sustainable. “I think this accelerated pace of development is leading to scientific and technical information overload. So, if you are a lab technician and you are doing something that has to be very focused, with all of the information that’s available and all of the new technology that’s available how do you focus, how do you choose and sift through what’s out there that is relevant to you?” - said Rory. This is where digital technology comes into play - many digital tools such as ELNs, inventory management, and instrument scheduling systems, are designed specifically for R&D labs, helping improve efficiency and saving hours of administrative work. In addition to that, combining data available with the help of digital technologies and insights into the workflow allows for better asset utilization and increased sustainability in a laboratory.

To assess the performance of the laboratory and plan operations more efficiently, information about asset utilization, instrument health, maintenance activities, and real-time data plays an important role.

Benefits & challenges of digital tools

Digital transformation in an R&D lab might seem like the obvious choice, however, the process of implementing digital tools can be very complex and have a wide range of different requirements, depending on your laboratory requirements. “The key thing is for labs to take the time to properly investigate and identify tools that are relevant to their workflows and then implement them.” - Rory added. With many labs, there are a few key aspects and challenges to consider before deciding on adding any tool to your workflow: 

  • Data management

The enormous amount of data that is produced in laboratories needs to not only be handled with care but must also be easily accessible in order for it to provide additional value. “Without tool integration, the data that is produced by or in the tool is almost by definition siloed, not easily accessible or combined with other tools and data that the lab is producing and is of minimal use” - said Rory. Once a central data point, such as ELN or LIMS, has been established, many laboratories might want to consider integrating other tools that are needed for workflows as well as laboratory devices to create a seamlessly connected network. As Rory said, “We deliberately designed ResearchSpace so that it seamlessly enables the collection of research data from many other resources and tools that the labs are using - data storage, colony management tools, sample management, and now, thanks to the integration with Clustermarket, also equipment data.”. In the digital age, no matter what industry you’re working in it is very important to have tools that work well with one another, and laboratories are no exception.

  • Digital security 

When it comes to using digital tools, the security of digital data is of the utmost importance - especially in a research environment. With instruments being connected to the internet and some even having the option to be controlled remotely, access and security should be taken seriously. Limiting access to the data or even the instruments themselves can be a good way to prevent unauthorized people from accessing them. Setting up different roles and permissions will allow easier access management and user authorization. An audit trail is another important aspect to consider when thinking about data integrity. A log of data changes, either caused by user actions or by automated workflows, will also play a big part in ensuring project reproducibility

Setting up your digital lab

Every laboratory or research organization will have its own vision for short-term and long-term digital transformation thus meaning different requirements and setup processes will be needed. “We’ve observed that sometimes a tool gets purchased, but it doesn’t get used very much because of the culture of the lab - everyone goes their own way. Fundamentally it comes down to the lab culture, a positive culture that is open but also has the ability to enforce necessary structure to it” said Rory. Digital culture is a crucial part of digital transformation be it in a lab or any other environment. Adopting digital culture does not mean that you will need to change what you have built completely, however it does mean you will need to consider aligning your current values with your digital concept. Generally, this means involving all stakeholders prior to making decisions regarding the adoption of digital tools and having everyone’s input on planning the later stages of adoption. While digital transformation is a complex process, it will improve the processes and workflows in your lab. To wrap up, Rory shared his final advice on digitizing your R&D laboratory: “My advice would be to take a moment to think about what digital tools are really going to be useful to the next stage of your project or your company, and then don’t pick too many. Try to pick a few which work well together and spend some time evaluating if these are the right tools for your lab and your workflows.”

Learn more about Clustermarket
Learn more about ResearchSpace
Read our white paper on choosing the right digital tools to improve your laboratory operations
Watch this webinar on supporting reproducibility through digital solutions

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