Under Pressure: Tackling the Rising Cost and Complexities of Running the Laboratory of the Future

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By Sebastian Tille

The time it takes between the discovery of new science and its transformation into new clinical treatments is always decreasing and is one of the triumphs of modern medicine. Often overlooked is the role that well-managed laboratories and cutting-edge equipment play in this progress. 

By implementing new technologies, life scientists can become more efficient and more productive and in parallel reduce costs and time spent on various tasks. You could draw parallels with industry, where building flexible, multi-product manufacturing facilities is leading to higher efficiency. By smartly designing laboratories, lab managers can increase the longevity of their equipment, as well as increase the efficiency of their teams.

The move to a connected, digital-first laboratory may be opening new possibilities for researchers, but for many it is also making the management and day-to-day running of the laboratory costlier and more complex. With lab technology constantly evolving and increasing in complexity, coupled with dwindling funding and space, how can researchers sustain quality while finding efficiencies in budgets and space? 

Outlined below are three tips to help overcome some of these challenges:

1. Design the lab to maximize equipment longevity and efficiency

The reality is that many research buildings were built with simpler systems in mind and space is often constrained, particularly in city settings. However, if lab managers can design their laboratories, there are several factors to consider when determining where to place each piece of equipment for optimal functionality and longevity.

In the case of microscopes, for example, temperature changes can severely impact the quality of imaging. This means lab managers need to ensure that air conditioning systems deliver air into the microscopy room while keeping the room temperature stable and without blowing air onto the equipment itself to ensure reliable measurements. Equipment that produces substantial amounts of heat, like power supplies, might need to be placed away from sensitive equipment, or even housed in a separate room to prevent the release of heat disrupting other pieces of equipment. When using fluorescence microscopy, room lights should be dimmed so that they do not affect the image quality. Consider using blackout curtains to separate individual microscope setups from the rest of the room – or, if possible, place critical setups in separate rooms. An additional consideration to keep in mind are sources of vibrations, mechanical or acoustical, which can also impact the sample and resulting image quality over time. There is a reason that sophisticated microscope systems are placed in the basement or away from big machinery, including elevators.

2. Think about equipment maintenance from the get go

At the onset of a project, when funding is secured, it is paramount to ensure that lab managers begin to think about equipment maintenance, preventing challenges that underperforming equipment can create further down the road. This will require proper resourcing; having a maintenance schedule as well as dedicated ownership in place can make a substantial difference. Also, setting aside funding to invest in software and hardware upgrades, can improve performance and protect the initial investment. 

Another smart investment are service contracts with the manufacturer, agreed upon when purchasing equipment at the onset of a project. However, it is easy to forget to incorporate these into budgets once funding is initially secured and, instead, focus on immediate and long-term material needs. Admittedly, most current funding schemes, which allocate money for a research project once, do not necessarily support assigning funds for recurring expenses.

Again, basic and regular maintenance is paramount to maximize longevity of equipment. For microscopes, frequent care is needed to ensure image quality and equipment functioning optimally as even small amounts of dust on the optics can have a negative impact on image quality.

3. Maximize productivity through automation and simplicity

Lab technicians work with multiple varyingly complex instruments and systems, often with relatively little time to learn the intricacies of operating each one. Providing them with simpler software and improved usability can improve their efficiency and create time to focus on other priorities. We’re now also seeing some laboratories investing in automated lab assistants to reduce turnaround time and reallocate workers to where their skills are most needed. This trend led Leica to develop PAULA, the Personal AUtomated Lab Assistant. PAULA helps researchers with simplified monitoring of cell culture growth, in an automated way, even sending remote users a notification about events of interest, such as reaching a defined level of confluency.

While the speed at which laboratory equipment is evolving is staggering, there are many ways to maximize the longevity of equipment already purchased, as well as set up a lab for success through simple, routine maintenance. However, the laboratory of the future is coming and automation and connectivity of devices through the Internet of Things (IoT) will be fundamental drivers of efficiencies. The most successful laboratory managers will be those that embrace this rapid shift and equip their teams to leverage the efficiencies afforded.

Sebastian Tille is Global Director of Open Innovation at Leica Microsystems, focusing on research and development collaborations with leading partners in academia and industry worldwide, with a mission to jointly create superior microscopic imaging solutions for life science, industrial and surgical applications. Sebastian got his engineering diploma from the University of Applied Sciences in Giessen, Germany. He started his career in R&D at Carl Zeiss, then became product manager for confocal microscopy, working out of Germany and later the U.S. He then worked with Veeco Instruments and Leica Microsystems, in various management positions and always very closely with users worldwide, collecting deeper insights into their needs and pain points.

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