ANALYSIS & OPINION

Predicting the future of the laboratory

The first in series of articles covering the Paperless Lab Academy conference – in this article Robert Roe looks at the importance of adopting digital technologies - the benefits and pitfalls that laboratories face when on the road to digital convergence.

The Paperless Lab Academy conference, held this year in Castelldefels, Barcelona, celebrated its fifth year in 2017 but rather than look to the past and previous success, this year the conference focused on the future – as the theme of ‘2020 Roadmap For Digital Convergence’ suggests.

Peter Boogaard, CEO of Industrial Lab Automation kicked off proceedings with the opening keynote, highlighting that the number of attendees to the event had grown by 25 per cent when compared to last year.

This meant more than 250 delegates attending the two-day event, which hosted 20 workshops and 19 plenary sessions along with a drinks reception – sponsored by Scientific Computing World – which proceeded the conference dinner.

During the presentation, Peter asked the crowd: ‘Which technology has the highest impact to accelerate digital convergence?’ Boogaard argued that it is battery technology that will have the biggest impact on digital laboratories as, increasingly, lab users look to use mobile or Internet of Laboratory Things (IoLT) devices.

Peter stressed that the use of the IoLT would be a key technology in the future of laboratory operations. This is already the case for a number of industries, but with many new technologies, the laboratory is not an early adopter due to concerns with protecting and managing sensitive patient data or IP.

‘There are 8.5 billion devices connected to IOT but how many are in the laboratory? Even in sailing, we use the IOT,’ stated Boogaard, who went on to predict that the laboratory would be the next industry to go paperless – just as industries such as banking and travel have done in recent years.

Boogaard stressed that now is not the time to shy away from these new technologies, but to embrace them so an organisation can leverage these tools to accelerate laboratory operations – or even collect data in new ways that were not previously possible. To ignore the power of the IOT just as some did with early paperless laboratory technology would make it much more difficult to compete over the coming years.

The conference theme was the ‘Roadmap to Digital Convergence', and each of the keynotes gave insights into how laboratories could shift from traditional methods of creating, transcribing and reporting data by using the latest technologies – or ensuring that they are applied correctly. This digital convergence can help transform the laboratory from a cost centre to a valuable arm of a business that can produce better results faster.

Following the opening presentation from Peter Boogaard, Louis Halverson – CTO of Northwest Analytics – took the stage to present the second keynote, focusing on transforming lab data into real-time actionable intelligence. Halverson explained that manufacturers in the process industries (chemicals/petrochemicals, materials, pharmaceuticals) are increasingly under pressure to improve process yields, efficiency, and asset utilisation and to eliminate unplanned downtime.

Northwest Analytics specialises in delivering manufacturing intelligence and statistical process control (SPC) software solutions to effectively manage and improve plant processes in manufacturing enterprises and supply chains.

Halverson argues that shifting by employing the correct software – he spoke directly about enterprise manufacturing intelligence (EMI solutions) and the increasing use of data to automate business and manufacturing processes whether under the guise of EMI, continuous process verification (CPV) or Industrie 4.0.

‘Analytical laboratories are a key provider of data that is essential for implementing EMI/CPV solutions, with LIMS being the primary information system responsible for managing this data. This gives laboratory managers a challenge and an opportunity to ensure that LIMS remains a significant contributor to the success of the enterprise,’ stated Halverson.

‘Unfortunately, the apparent value of LIMS is often limited by technical and systemic issues that affect timeliness and the ability of process engineers and managers to effectively access and make use of the data,’ Halverson added.

A key point that Halverson stressed throughout his keynote address was the importance of not just the data but its context. To correctly integrate data, so that systems can be automated, requires users to understand how this data is created – but they also need to know what this data means to an organisation, something that Halverson says is often overlooked. Ultimately, this process helps an organisation turn the laboratory from a cost centre into a value centre.

‘Laboratory data is not simple, and test results can be misunderstood,’ said Halverson. ‘There is a lot more data within these companies than is ever used. Our goal is to make that data useful. We need to leverage the value of that data’ he added.

Attendees at the PLA conference saw numerous presentations focusing on the use digital technologies in the laboratory – particular from the keynote speakers Michael Shanler, research vice president at market research firm Gartner.

Shanler’s presentation explored the ‘digital potential’ within an organisation while also explaining the importance of a digital transformation for an organisations future survival. Shanler argued that implementing digital technologies helps organisations to develop ‘an unparalleled situational awareness for laboratory activities’ and that this would become a requirement for all organisations over the coming years.

This changes arising due to ‘new capabilities for real time access to data, IoT-enabled devices, as well as better predictive technologies across an ever expanding and increasingly complex sets of data will require a shift in thinking and an IT-business realignment’ stated Shanler.

During the presentation Shanler asked the audience ‘What does digital really mean?’ He explained that this digital concept means very different things depending on the organisation and its industry. ‘Different organisations almost all have a different idea of what digital means,’ said Shanler.

Shanler argued that to transform the laboratory, whatever the end-purpose, it is crucial that lab managers can understand and accurately define what a digital laboratory is. While wholesale adoption of technology can be useful, it is important to understand how much of this technology is relevant to your organisation.

Laboratory users can already make use of the IOT, analytics and many other techniques enabled through digitation of the laboratory but these practices and technologies require specific expertise and data that has been collected and stored correctly so that it can be used to gain valuable insight when needed.

‘We are trying to predict and describe behaviours because it allows us to increase knowledge which influences decision making downstream. Any vendor that is selling you the solution overnight it’s not going to work this requires change over time’ stated Shanler.

While it is unclear which technologies will rise to the top, there is a definite sense that this is a key crossroad for the informatics industry. Even without the presence of IOT as a tool for data collection computing technologies have reached a point of maturity where they users can start to make use of the huge amounts of data that are being collected. Organisations that are most successful at turning data into actionable insight will have a distinct advantage over the coming years.

‘Value is not in the IOT. It is in the analytics that are enabled through the use of these technologies,’ concluded Shanler.

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