The laboratory of the future – the SMART lab

A paradigm shift is becoming apparent in modern laboratories 

The Laboratory of the Future

As laboratory processes become increasingly complex, automation solutions become absolutely essential in order to maintain process accuracy and consistency, and to improve efficiency.

To meet regulatory and legal requirements, process conditions need to be monitored and data stored through ever expanding networks. Information technology is resulting in new ways of using the enormous data volumes gathered by the modern automated lab. The lab of the future will present unforeseen challenges and opportunities as higher throughput, precisely controlled automated processes and information collection and analysis solve today’s problems and bring new ideas to light.

Automated sample preparation: identifying samples and pipetting liquids
Automated sample preparation: identifying samples and pipetting liquids

The SMART lab begins with the automation of manual procedures in system modules and instruments that can be easily integrated into complete processes. These components network together for control and data collection via lab integration software (LIMS). The lab of the future builds on this with software that helps define the process layout and integrate digital data management throughout the process. The result is a flexible, efficient system that can be set up rapidly and validated more easily than manual processes.

With increasing digitalization, many processes and structures in the laboratory need to be reconsidered. Lab instruments and systems need to be network-compatible with common hardware and software handshakes to facilitate the interchange of both samples and data. This requires more complex and comprehensive automated solutions with simple batch control and monitoring accessible for lab staff using easy to understand local graphic displays, while production and data are transferred to higher level networks. Industry is already responding to these needs: the number of network-compatible lab instruments with smart functions is growing rapidly. The number of LIMS solutions is growing and open standards for lab information transfer such as SiLA are gaining traction. Lab 4.0 is starting to become real.

Creating buffer solutions and serial dilutions
Creating buffer solutions and serial dilutions

Many of the ideas for the automated lab of today and the future are coming from automation in other industries – for example, many robotic concepts have initial commercial roots in the automotive and light assembly industries. Few automated processes, anywhere in the world, are controlled as tightly as semiconductor chip fabrication. As an automation leader in these industries, Festo has learned, and applies them. Festo’s Industry 4.0 manufacturing plant in Ostfildern, near Stuttgart, is a learning center for new technology and processes, as well as one of the most important production facilities at Festo.

Inspired by implementing and living Industry 4.0, Festo is developing automation packages to help laboratory partners and customers to build intelligent subsystems/modules which can be used for creating instruments, systems or automated processes for future smart laboratories. These customized packages are based on optimized, validated components both from Festo and specialist lab automation providers, and are configured to allow open and intelligent motion control between modules. State-of-the-art motion control software modules allow the system builder to parameterize and link modules instead of repeatedly programming individual process steps.

Compact controller concept with a wide range of predefined interfaces
Compact controller concept with a wide range of predefined interfaces

Specifications for each subsystem are defined together with our partners and customers, so that flexibility and ease of use can be maximized. Understanding the application and getting involved at an early stage yield the best results. Festo works with engineers from many partner companies to assure that the modules go together seamlessly and integrate the required interfaces and software into the optimum functional solution.

The Festo MedLab engineering and application team is made up of experts from many areas of automation (instruments, systems and processes), and they possess the know-how gained from customers in many industries as well as their own manufacturing departments to develop ready-to-use, validated plug & work modules to build the SMART lab of the future. Current modules by Festo include robotics in the form of 2D and 3D handling, liquid dispensing and capping/recapping systems. Sample handling, pipetting, identification and more is done with partner systems supported with intelligent, programmable Festo software (CODESYS).

Collaborative engineering, accuracy and consistency in your processes – we’re your partner for productivity and success.

About the author

Festo Wolfgang Trautwein

Wolfgang Trautwein
Business Development LifeTech
Festo AG & Co. KG