Laboratories all across the world are embracing new forms of technology and equipment as a way to increase productivity and improve efficiency. One of the biggest technological advancements is a concept that is currently pervading the consumer market: The Internet of Things (IoT). Whether in a university lab, a cutting-edge research facility or a start-up biotechnology company, no laboratory is immune to this massive technological evolution taking place.
If you’re not familiar with IoT, think of it as a series of interconnected devices that are able to communicate with each other and transfer data back and forth over a network. For example, IoT is found in the following real world applications: adjusting a thermostat from a smartphone, starting a car using an app and viewing security camera footage on a tablet from anywhere in the world.
The data collected through IoT has proven invaluable in today’s ever-evolving tech world because it allows devices and tasks to become more automated and integrated with the natural pace of our lives. This digital renaissance, however, isn’t limited to the consumer world anymore—it is beginning to creep into today’s laboratory environments as well. Think of it as the Internet of Labs (IoL).
TODAY’S LABS ARE MORE CONNECTED THAN EVER
Cloud-connected (sometimes referred to as “smart”) equipment is slowly, but drastically, changing the way we do things within the lab. This equipment enables researchers to be more productive by allowing them to remotely monitor experiments, collect data and more. As a matter of fact, both the CDC and NIH recommend that equipment containing research samples be continuously monitored. As such, many of today’s top labs already utilize smart technology in the form of cloud-connected HVAC systems, thermostats and freezers. For example, -80
C freezers often contain valuable samples derived from years and years of research. These freezers can now be equipped with cloud-connected temperature probes that monitor the temperature and send alerts to scientists or facilities when a fault condition occurs (i.e., the freezer falls below its temperature set-point and endangers the stored specimens).
The need for connected devices is further made evident in a recent survey involving dozens of researchers, lab managers and technicians.
SURVEY RESULTS: CLOUD IN THE LAB
According to a 2016 survey conducted by Consolidated Sterilizer Systems, 72 percent of respondents indicated an overall disconnect between their physical workspace and the location of their laboratory equipment (e.g. autoclaves) used within their facility. Many respondents revealed that their laboratory equipment was situated in a different room (e.g. down the hall, on a different floor or in another building entirely) from their work bench or computer station.
This statistic, coupled with the fact that a third of respondents admitted to having to check on their equipment multiple times throughout the day, shows the obvious need for a cloud-connected monitoring solution.
The survey also proved that autoclave users are ready, willing and able to accept data regarding their autoclave usage and performance. In fact, 81 percent of respondents indicated that it would be useful to check the status of an autoclave from their computer, phone or both.
Survey participants also indicated an overall yearning for “easy access” to data normally found on an equipment’s printout, not to mention total and complete visibility and traceability into the performance of the equipment itself.
CASE STUDY: CLOUD-CONNECTED AUTOCLAVES
One of the latest examples of a cloud solution is cloud-enabled autoclaves. A cloud-connected autoclave can help eliminate this chronic work place inefficiency by sending real-time alerts (e.g. Cycle Over) to an end-user’s desktop, cell phone or tablet.
The most notable benefits researchers experience when implementing a cloud-connected autoclave into their laboratory are listed below:
• Increased productivity: A cloud-connected autoclave reduces work place inefficiency (i.e. waiting time, running to another floor to see if the cycle is complete, etc.) by allowing alerts (e.g. Cycle Over) to be sent to an end-user’s desktop or mobile device. The implications of this are many: less interruption, less wait time, less down time, more experiments and better use of time. Cloud-connection can also be helpful from a scheduling perspective, allowing lab workers to schedule equipment-use in advance and plan experiments ahead of time. Not only can they minimize downtime, but they reduce waiting time and allow researchers to work on multiple pieces of equipment remotely.
• Improved traceability: Traceability is essential for cost allocation in large facilities where autoclaves are shared between departments. Previously, determining which lab or department used the autoclave meant pouring through usage charts and paper records. With a cloud-connected autoclave, tracing usage by department is easily done by accessing a Cycle History Report (in PDF or Excel format) that includes information such as operator ID, date, time and any error messages from the cycle. All of this data is stored in the cloud allowing for easy access to records at any time and the ability to analyze autoclave usage across the entire facility.
• Reduced maintenance costs: Preventative maintenance on autoclaves has traditionally been planned in terms of time intervals (e.g. quarterly, annually, etc.). A better metric for planning maintenance schedules is usage (e.g. every 300 cycles). Capturing the number of cycles run on an autoclave between maintenance visits can be easily captured with cloud-connectivity. As a result, usage-based preventative maintenance scheduling can be employed to decrease downtime and reduce costs created by unnecessary maintenance.
HOW LABS CAN PREPARE
Setting up your lab for the cloud is not something that can happen overnight—however, there are two steps you can take to better prepare for the inevitable switch to cloud-connected lab equipment.
1. Get connected: The first step is perhaps the simplest. If your lab is not already equipped with the latest technology, it’s in your best interest to install Ethernet drops or make Wi-Fi available throughout your lab facility. This will make installing cloud-connected equipment much more seamless.
2. Workflow audit: The next, most crucial step, is to audit your existing workflow within your lab. Identify where there is “waste”—in the form of waiting time, processing time or motion—and where cloud-connected equipment could reduce this waste. This process can be enlightening, as it often leads to the discovery of obvious workflow efficiencies improvements.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN CLOUD SYSTEMS AND CONNECTED LAB EQUIPMENT
The following is a list of attributes to look for when identifying cloud-connected equipment and systems for your laboratory:
• Cloud system:
o The system should encrypt the data in transit and in storage by using HTTPS/TLS and AES-256 bit encryption or better.
o The system should buffer all data to be uploaded to the cloud in order to prevent data loss in the event of an Internet connection interruption.
o The system should require two-factor authentication for increased security.
o The system should allow users to view and/or control all compatible equipment from a single dashboard.
o Ideally, the cloud system should be compatible with multiple categories of laboratory equipment.
• Lab equipment:
o Users should be able to view the real-time status of the equipment from any computer, smart phone or tablet using a standard Web browser.
o Users should be able to subscribe to and receive SMS and e-mail alerts pertaining to the status of the lab equipment.
Many of today’s researchers are working around operational inefficiencies due to archaic methods of data collection and storage, equipment monitoring and maintenance scheduling. A “smarter” network of equipment is starting to enter the laboratory and has the potential to greatly increase productivity and streamline workflow. In a few short years, the Internet of Labs and cloud-connected equipment will be commonplace. Researchers and lab managers should take time to understand how their labs can best prepare for the shift to a cloud-connected laboratory and realize the benefits from this new technology.
Arthur Trapotsis is Chief Executive Officer of Consolidated Sterilizer Systems. He enjoys presenting at conferences around the U.S. on emerging trends in the steam sterilizer market. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.consteril.com