Going up! The Laboratory 4.0 lift

Going up the technology elevator

Lab technology is on the way up – shouldn’t you get on?

Lab technicians are notoriously set in their ways. But what if the ways in question are subject to rapid and extreme change, courtesy of the fourth industrial revolution? Every technological advance increases the disparity between the current way of doing things and the potential way of doing them.

First floor: microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip

Many of the functions of the lab can now be integrated into a single chip through the manipulation of biological samples and miniaturised devices. This unprecedented level of miniaturisation enables the division of a single drop of fluid into many thousands of component droplets and perform various pre-programmed operations on each droplet.

Platforms have been developed at institutions like Paris’ Ecole Polytechnique that can accommodate hundreds of thousands of single cell cultures. This allows them to rapidly test responses to controlled stimuli such as a certain drug or a mechanical signal and perform tests one cell at a time. This could generate big data that allows for a vastly more precise study of cellular behaviour and very exact statistics. It will also be possible to detect minority subpopulations of cells that have never been detected before. Additionally, very little sample is required, meaning precious or scarce samples can be conserved.

The CSIR was an early adopter of this technology, which is slowly becoming more prevalent in SA. The Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, which is affiliated with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, also houses a sizable microfluidics facility. Microfluidics haven’t taken SA labs by storm yet, particularly in the public health sector, possibly due to the high rate of expertise and initial investment required to produce them.

Second floor: Automation and big data labs

Modern lab scientists use their hands far less than they did a decade ago thanks to lab automation processes. It is seldom necessary to process samples manually when automated pipetting or liquid handling systems can do it for you, with zero rate of error. An unintended consequence of lab automation technologies is that researchers now found themselves drowning in a sea of data.

Huge datasets are generated by machines that can handle hundreds of samples at once, or by the above-mentioned microfluidics technology, and researchers are increasingly turning to advanced machine learning, data mining and neural networks to make sense of their results, giving rise to the laboratory information management systems (LIMS) industry.

A 2015 survey found that only 24% of South African labs used LIMS for sample handling and only 14% it for workflow automation. A key barrier to entry was the cost of the average system. However, 58% indicated that they were looking into LIMS as a priority investment via cloud technology. A further 25% were looking into implementing it via mobile devices.

Third floor: Augmented reality?

One of the most radical projections for Lab 4.0 is the use of augmented reality technology to display equipment info on the actual equipment in real time. This would require the kind of bag data availability of information that LIMS has to offer, integrated with virtual reality technology in the form of goggles. While this sounds far-fetched, prototypes have already been developed by companies like BioBright in Boston, Massachusetts.

One of the great advantages of an augmented reality system is that it can be optimised to provide information pertinent to current experiments and can integrate with voice recognition software to allow voice retrieval and display of information. It can also record and review all activities in the lab. This would enable instant recall and reproduction of results.

Goggles aren’t required for augmented reality tech, since most augmented reality programmes run on smartphones, but this would slow down workflows. Augmented reality has the potential to change multiple industries, but for the moment it remains confined to multiple prototype initiatives in the developed world.

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