The pandemic has fuelled a wave of digitalisation within research and development, with many laboratories adapting to the new way of working by implementing digital software and technology that facilitate remote work.
The disruptive technologies that characterise Laboratory 4.0, from basic connectivity of documentation to automation, advanced analytics and artificial intelligence (AI), have the potential to radically transform the laboratory environment, enabling scientists to work smarter, not harder.
Research and development (R&D) has been on the digitalisation trajectory for years and to a greater extent, COVID-19 has merely acted as a catalyst for change, forcing laboratories to implement these technologies to continue to have access to their research during the pandemic. Despite unfavourable circumstances that have forced this change, laboratories will benefit from digitalisation in the long run, COVID-19 has just sped up the inevitable.
Laboratories after COVID-19 will be different, but better. They'll be able to capitalise on increased productivity, streamlined documentation and automated laboratory processes, allowing scientists to make the most of their valuable time and effort.
It is expected that a large number of laboratories will have switched or will be preparing to switch to a form of digital documentation where research is stored on a unified, online platform, accessible through a local server or the cloud.
The Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) is the most renowned software to replace the traditional paper lab notebook. Facilitating data retrieval, reproducibility, and compliance, the ELN has proven it's worth over the course of the pandemic, enabling scientists to continue vital research remotely.
Whilst specific features differ according to which ELN is selected, overall, laboratories that implement this software have an immediate advantage over competing institutions that still use paper, being able to easily access their research from anywhere in the world.
A few ELNs also provide the ability to manage inventory lists, helping lab managers not only keep track of material stocks but also allowing scientists to connect their inventory lists directly to their research. These features are also available with the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) that helps researchers manage samples and data efficiently. LIMS features vary, with some offering the ability to create and scan barcodes, while others offer integration capabilities with other software and laboratory equipment. Ultimately, both digital solutions have seen an increase in uptake since the pandemic, making them staple features of the laboratories after COVID-19.
In comparison to the ELN, full-scale automation was not as common in laboratories before the pandemic largely due to the big expense of implementing such systems. Yet, that is not to say that automation was left off research institutions’ roadmaps for the future. As lab automation comes in a number of shapes and sizes, different research fields require different features with their automation, finding the best one suited for a laboratory can be difficult, especially when a large price tag is attached. Scientists, therefore, put a lot of thought and consideration into the decision behind which automation system is right for their laboratory.
The pandemic has to a greater extent increased reliance on digital technology and many industries have used it as an opportunity to implement forms of automation and the Internet of Things (IoT) to increase productivity, despite the restricted access to the workplace. The laboratory is no different, being the perfect environment for automation, given the importance for laboratories to produce accurate, compliant research. With automation, repetitive tasks that were typically the task of the researcher can be executed expertly by a machine, reducing human error and maximising a scientist’s time and effort.
The emphasis placed on the digitalisation of processes will not diminish after the pandemic, it is likely to increase significantly. Over the course of the pandemic, many industries have relied heavily on the connectivity digital platforms provide and with increased trust an emphasis placed on these disruptive solutions, digital implementation is likely to continue at an increased pace.
Research institutions will continue to look for ways to improve productivity in the laboratory. In incorporating digital documentation software alongside forms of automation, the laboratory environment will be taken to another level that will be able to help scientists overcome many of the existing barriers within science, such as research reproducibility, accessibility and accuracy.
Whilst it is difficult to conclusively know what the lab of the future will look like, there is pressure for laboratories to implement these solutions, particularly as competition within research fields increase. The end result of embracing the opportunities these technologies provide is the creation of a system that works alongside scientists to produce the best possible standard of research: the ‘smart lab’.
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