by David Heiger, Ph.D., Associate Vice President, Lab Enterprise Division, Agilent CrossLab Group, Agilent Technologies
2021 has brought hope and promise as many countries across the globe distribute vaccinations against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But, rewind to a year ago, and many businesses and government-funded institutions had either shut down or reprioritized their operations to prevent the transmission of the virus. The scientific community was one of many sectors affected, with many laboratories temporarily shutting down, reducing their throughput, and others pivoting to meet the demands of the fight against COVID-19. Analytical instrument vendors were committed to supporting their customers with innovations that simplified, optimized, and transformed lab operations so that these businesses could adjust to the new normal and advance their lab performance.
New and Emerging Lab Challenges
At the beginning of the pandemic, it was increasingly challenging for many labs to maintain productivity, particularly for scientists and analysts required to perform much of their routine work in the lab. In a typical lab environment, analytical instruments and lab devices are tightly positioned together to capitalize on valuable bench space. In the pre-pandemic scenario, social distancing wasn’t a requirement, and therefore the need to utilize something such as a scheduling assist tool was pretty much non-existent. But when the pandemic hit, many labs had to quickly adopt new ways of working, including shift work patterns and remote work where possible – all hoping to rebalance lab productivity while ensuring the safety of lab personnel during the early stages of the pandemic.
Initiatives to optimize lab efficiencies and increase productivity have been hot topics for many labs over the past few years. One survey identified that 65% of lab managers would welcome innovations to improve laboratory efficiency, with 83% stating that their current workflow required optimization. This confirmed that advancing lab operations was already a high priority for lab managers even before the pandemic.1
Lab managers seek to centralize, standardize, and potentially automate their entire lab workflow across technologies, utilizing solutions that would manage the whole workflow in a controlled, compliant environment. Automated cross-platform software solutions will be the key to mastering the data to support customers in their mission to deliver sustainable results in ever shorter cycles.
Implementing Digitalized Innovations
For example, digital-based smart solutions are becoming more widely used and valued by customers who experienced significant disruptions to their routine lab operations during the pandemic. Adapting quickly to major lab disruptions is pivotal to maintaining business operations. By implementing digitalized innovations to advance lab operations, lab managers are better equipped to prepare against unforeseen disruptions and establish a competitive differentiation in the market.
For example, Agilent’s CrossLab Smart Alerts can monitor instrument health and provide email-based alerts, notifying end-users when to replace essential consumables, when to perform preventive maintenance, and when an instrument stops running anywhere in the lab. A prominent part of the software is Remote Assist, which allows customers to send support requests directly to customer support. Combined with augmented reality tools, the service is designed to help users receive prompt attention and minimize instrument downtime.2
To facilitate social distancing and schedule staff access for the use of lab equipment, digitalized solutions may include scheduling functionality software that can reserve specific resources and spaces, control access to sensitive or validated equipment, and track utilization.
Tools that improve interconnectivity have been beneficial for labs throughout the pandemic yet are also valuable in routine lab operations when considering lab productivity. The application of instrument monitoring can enable lab managers and scientists to digitally transform their labs and optimize workflows by gaining visualization of instrument fleets via Cloud-based instrument utilization tools. Solutions such as these are designed to drive decision-making processes and maximize lab productivity as they provide fact-based data for lab management decisions.
Many labs faced mandatory shutdowns during the pandemic, but some still operated partially and required instrument service support. Digital solutions enabled field service engineers to continue to install, maintain, qualify, and repair instruments using virtual remote assist technology that leverages augmented reality tools to support both engineers and customers with expertise when it’s needed the most.
Preparing Labs for the Future
The pandemic has shown that scientific communities are robust and responsive when adapting to unexpected scenarios, regardless of scale. The working lessons of the pandemic are sure to influence what the “lab of the future” will look like. Adopting remote technologies to maintain operations, scheduling systems to improve the effective use of lab shared assets, virtual learning, and cloud-based instrument monitoring are just a few examples. Lab managers may use the experience of the pandemic as an opportunity to re-evaluate the effectiveness of their lab set-up and operation and think about how they can advance their operations to move towards a more optimized lab of the future.
Cloud solutions, virtual reality, and other digital offerings will increasingly define these labs of the future. However, the delicate balance between the digital world and the real lab environment must still be considered, as an effective combination of both worlds will more than likely provide the most efficient and effective solution.
For more information, view the infographic: Driving Lab Productivity: A journey to advancing laboratory operations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
1"Optimizing Pharmaceutical Laboratory Efficiency and Productivity," PDF, Agilent Technologies. https://www.agilent.com/content/dam/about/newsroom/infograhics/pdf/optimizing-pharmaceutical-laboratory-interactive.pdf
2"COVID-19 Digital Solutions," Agilent Technologies. https://www.agilent.com/about/COVID-19/en/digital-solutions-smart-technologies.html
About the Author: David Heiger is an associate vice president of the Agilent CrossLab Group (ACG) at Agilent Technologies, Lab Enterprise Division. He holds a M.S. in Chemistry from Ohio State University and a Ph.D. in Biotechnology from Northeastern University.