The laboratory of the future – the SMART lab

A paradigm shift is occurring in modern laboratories.

As laboratory processes become more complex, automation solutions are essential to ensure the accuracy and consistency of processes and to improve efficiency.

To meet legal and regulatory requirements, process conditions must be monitored and data must be stored over ever larger networks. Information technology opens up new possibilities for using the enormous amounts of data collected in modern, automated laboratories. The laboratory of the future will offer unprecedented challenges and opportunities as it will bring higher throughput and precisely controlled automated processes while the collection and analysis of information solve today's problems and bring new ideas to light.

The SMART laboratory starts with the automation of manual procedures in system modules and instruments that can be easily integrated into complete processes. Components are networked via laboratory integration software (LIMS) for control and data acquisition. The laboratory of the future is based on this software, which helps to define the process layout and integrate digital data management into the process. The result is a flexible, efficient system that is quick to set up and easier to validate than manual processes.

With increasing digitalisation, many processes and structures in the laboratory need to be reconsidered. Laboratory devices and systems must be network-enabled and have common hardware and software handshakes to facilitate the exchange of samples and data. This requires more complex and comprehensive automation solutions with simple batch control and monitoring and with easy-to-understand local graphic displays that are accessible to laboratory staff, while production and data are transmitted to higher-level networks. The industry is already responding to these requirements as the number of network-compatible laboratory devices with intelligent functions is increasing rapidly. The number of LIMS solutions is growing and open standards for the transmission of laboratory information such as SiLA are becoming more popular. Laboratory 4.0 is starting to become a reality.

Many of the ideas for the automated laboratory of today and tomorrow come from automation in other industries. For example, many robotic concepts have their commercial roots in the automotive and light assembly industries. Few automated processes in the world are as strictly controlled as the manufacture of semiconductor chips. As the automation leader in these industries, Festo has gained lots of experience and is putting it into practice too. The Industry 4.0 manufacturing plant from Festo in Ostfildern near Stuttgart is a learning centre for new technologies and processes and one of Festo's most important production sites.

Inspired by an understanding of Industry 4.0 and its implementation, Festo is developing automation packages to help laboratory partners and customers build smart subsystems/modules that can be used to create instruments, systems or automated processes for future smart laboratories. These customised packages are based on optimised and validated components from both Festo and specialised laboratory automation suppliers and are configured to enable open and intelligent motion control between modules. State-of-the-art motion control software modules allow the system builder to parameterise and link modules instead of repeatedly reprogramming individual process steps.

The specifications for each subsystem are defined together with our partners and customers so that flexibility and ease of use can be maximised. Understanding the application and getting involved at an early stage leads to the best results. Festo works with engineers from many partner companies to ensure that the modules fit together seamlessly and that the necessary interfaces and software are integrated to create the optimum functional solution.

The engineering and applications team from Festo MedLab is made up of experts from many automation areas (instruments, systems and processes) who have an in-depth understanding of different industries and customers as well as their own production. This enables them to develop ready-to-use, proven plug-and-work modules for the SMART laboratory of the future. The current modules from Festo include robotics in the form of 2D and 3D handling, liquid dispensing and capping/decapping systems. Sample handling, pipetting, identification and many other tasks are carried out with partner systems supported by intelligent, programmable Festo software (CODESYS).

We work with you during development to ensure your processes are accurate and consistent – we are your partner for productivity and success.

About the author

Wolfgang Trautwein
Business Development MedLab

February 2018