As technology advances, a digital transformation has begun in laboratories around the world. Driven by the need to improve data quality and increase the value derived from the investment in generating those data, data management systems, devices, and their workflows are becoming more connected and integrated, ushering in the age of the digital laboratory.
The digital laboratory is one where paper lab notebooks are replaced with fully digital data, complete with rich metadata, and generated using integrated workflows. Such data are easy to find, reuse, and reproduce. Further digitization and workflow integration to operate laboratory instruments will advance the burgeoning digital laboratory.
The internet of things (IoT) has revolutionized our daily lives in numerous ways. From consumer products like smart thermostats and doorbells to wearable technologies that track sleep patterns and other health parameters, the IoT is simplifying and improving our lives in countless ways. Although this technology has been slow to extend to the scientific laboratory, an increasing number of instruments are becoming connected to the IoT. These instruments are embedded with connectivity and software, allowing them to integrate – through the IoT – with systems used by the laboratory. This, in turn, permits optimized workflows that are more flexible and efficient than ever. In addition to benefiting the laboratories and researchers that use these instruments, shifting laboratory workflows to cloud-based platforms also benefits the IT groups supporting these instruments and software.
How Researchers Benefit from Connected Laboratories
By connecting laboratory instruments and the software used to operate them to the cloud, operational workflows are now even more flexible (Perkel 2017). Researchers can set up runs for these instruments and access their data post run from a variety of locations — at their desk, in the laboratory, or even from home — using a web browser, which eliminates the need for specific, expensive software that may only be installed on a limited number of computers.
Furthermore, integration with the instrument allows automatic file transfer to and from the instrument without the need for keychain drives or shared network drives, which typically need to be accessed over a virtual private network (VPN) when working remotely. The connection to the cloud also facilitates remote monitoring of instrument status or run progress. This extra flexibility means that users can minimize the time spent in the laboratory performing setup tasks at the instrument, transferring files, and checking on instruments, and instead use their time analyzing data and optimizing experimental protocols. Additionally, investigators can monitor instruments and experiments when they cannot be present physically (such as when they’re traveling for conferences).
How Laboratories Benefit from Connectivity
In addition to the flexibility that connected instruments can bring to the researchers that use these systems daily, they bring additional benefits to the entire laboratory. Moving instrument software and data management capabilities from the desktop to the cloud simplifies new user onboarding, as installation of software onto personal computers is no longer necessary. It also removes operating system specificity, and users can access software from any machine, from Macbook to mobile device. This increases global access to the software, ensuring that everyone that needs to use it can do so and reducing bottlenecks at shared laboratory computers.
Instrument setup files and experimental data are all stored in the cloud, so it’s easier to share those items with other members of the laboratory or with collaborators. All users access the same copy of a file, eliminating issues that arise due to file duplication. Additionally, you can be confident that the same version of a template is used by all laboratory members to set up experiments, and data can easily be shared or reviewed by others, without the need to manually send files. Data are accessed through a thin client, so permission just needs to be granted to additional users.
With data stored securely in the cloud with automated backup, organizations are safeguarded against data loss in the event of a disaster and no longer need to worry about the risk posed by data stored locally on individual computers of users or the laboratory.
How IT Benefits from Connected Laboratories
The benefits of connected instruments are not limited to the researchers and their laboratories. Although IT staff aren’t typically considered when deciding which instruments to buy, they are critical for ensuring the instrument runs correctly for its entire lifespan. Adoption of the cloud is increasingly favored by IT groups, since cloud platforms can both improve data security and make it easier to manage software and users, all while reducing the total cost of ownership. Cloud platforms coupled with modern user management technology like single sign-on make user access and the enforcement of security policies easier for IT to manage.
Additionally, operating instruments through a cloud-based platform opens the path to eliminating the companion PCs traditionally used to operate these instruments. These computers have proven difficult to support as they age, though they remain in use alongside the instrument for its lifetime. Newer versions of the operating system eventually become unsupported by the instrument software, making it impossible to maintain software updates and security patches. To keep these instruments functioning, the computers are air-gapped from the network, forcing users to manually transfer data using physical media — a scenario that IT groups hope to avoid in the future. This can be achieved by connecting analytical instruments and their operating software directly to the cloud, eliminating their reliance on the companion PC.
How Organizations Benefit from Connected Laboratories
While connected instruments operated through cloud platforms yield many benefits to the researchers, their laboratories, and the IT personnel that support them, they also help address critical needs of the entire organization. Data are a key asset to any life sciences organization (Jernigan et al. 2016), and data quality and integrity must be maintained to support the organization’s value chain.
Traditional laboratory instruments with desktop software-based workflows, coupled with manual methods for data management leave organizations vulnerable to a variety of issues. Workflows frequently involve reentry of information between systems, which is both inefficient and prone to human error. As integration and information transfer between adjacent software systems becomes easier with modern cloud technology, organizations can improve both operational efficiency and data quality. Data quality can be further enhanced by ensuring relevant metadata captured at different levels and by different systems remain linked to the data for the entirety of its lifecycle.
Furthermore, maintaining data locally in proprietary formats makes it difficult for organizations to ensure that files are not manipulated, a problem which, when it occurs, can be difficult to detect. By storing original copies of data automatically in the cloud, an organization can ensure that the original data generated by an analytical instrument is maintained while providing users the ability to analyze and work with the data in a non-destructive manner. The ability to produce high quality data while minimizing efforts to ensure its integrity are key drivers that any organization should consider when determining whether to adopt connected instruments.
Support Your Digital Laboratory with the BR.io Cloud Platform
Bio-Rad’s SaaS platform for laboratory instruments, the BR.io cloud platform, is now available as early access. The BR.io cloud platform integrates with the new CFX Opus Real-Time PCR System as its first supported instrument. Through integration with the BR.io cloud platform, CFX Opus System users can leverage integrated workflows, cloud-based data management, and remote instrument monitoring to streamline their workflows. Additionally, instruments, software, and experimental data are easily accessed from a variety of locations. By aligning workflows with how users work in modern research organizations, Bio-Rad provides the flexibility to enable users to think less about the technology being used and focus more on research that matters.
Laboratory work as we know it will change significantly in the years to come. The digitization of the laboratory is a major trend, bringing significant benefits to researchers, laboratories, and organizations. Several laboratories have already implemented workflows with IoT-ready instruments that can be controlled and/or managed remotely. Continual advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence will enable an increasing amount of automation where repetitive manual tasks were the norm. When manual steps are removed, gains in data quality and operational efficiency are made, and organizations can refocus their scientists’ efforts on research that matters.
Bio-Rad is a trusted partner helping move the science industry toward its digitized future. With our commitment and focus on cloud computing, we welcome the laboratory of the future.
Jernigan, S et al. (2016). Data sharing and analytics drive success with IoT. MIT Sloan Management Review. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/projects/data-sharing-and-analytics-drive-success-with-internet-of-things/, accessed June 15, 2022.
Perkel, JM (2017). The Internet of Things comes to the lab. Nature 542, 125–126.