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- 05/31/2018

Lab 4.0: Intelligent, network-integrated laboratory of the future

Chimica Oggi-Chemistry Today

The German national smartLAB innovation network intends to make the vision of the intelligent, network-integrated Lab 4.0 a reality.

Funding is being provided by the German Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) under the national SME innovation program (ZIM).  Approximately 20 companies and institutions have joined forces in the network:  Eppendorf AG, Fraunhofer-Institut für Produktionstechnik und Automatisierung (IPA), Herr M, iTiZZiMO, Köttermann, labfolder, Lorenscheit, LUPYLED, PreSens Precision Sensing, Sartorius, Schmidt + Haensch, Zühlke Engineering and Deutsche Messe AG. The project is being managed by the Institute of Technical Chemistry at Leibniz University Hannover.  

The goal of the network is to drive development and standardization of innovative lab technology along with the associated applications and solutions. The intended outcomes include simplified process flows, better quality, higher efficiency and enhanced process reliability. A lab environment which meets all of these needs will require components and functionalities which work together, and robotic systems will perform many of the manual tasks.

The intelligent lab of the future in Hannover

A Lab 4.0 prototype is on display in Hannover. It is called smartLAB, and it was unveiled as a visionary model lab in 2015 at the LABVOLUTION laboratory technology show.

smartLAB breaks new ground visually and in what goes on behind the scenes. It is made up of individual hexagonal honeycomb modules, each 90 centimeters high. This saves space and adds significant flexibility for the lab layout. The list of innovative features includes network-enabled devices, automation, robotics, surfaces with weighing and measuring functionality, 3D printers and data-enabled goggles which can issue instructions and raise an alarm if necessary.

The real breakthrough technology in smartLAB is the interaction between the different devices and equipment and the specially-developed software. Lab 4.0 is completely network-integrated, something which has been the exception in real-world lab environments.

nICLAS Innovation Center for Lab Automation in Stuttgart

Fraunhofer IPA, in conjunction with partners from industry, is also developing new technologies for tomorrow’s smart lab. The scene of the action is the nICLAS Innovation Center in Stuttgart. The list of active contributors includes industrial users and developers as well as partners who build bridges to the research and education sector. The background is as follows. Automation is a priority at only a small minority of labs worldwide. This is due to strict regulations and multi-variant, non-standardized process flows in day-to-day operations.

Cooperative R&D delivers results

nICLAS FutureLab is already providing some initial impetus and food for thought. Intelligent tracking is one example. A tracking system was developed at Fraunhofer IPA which automatically documents and analyzes hand movements using 3D image analysis.  A 3D camera mounted above a sterile bench records employee hand movements and transmits the data live to an information system. The information is then analyzed with the aid of motion recognition algorithms, classified and recorded in a log. The system accurately captures and logs every single process step without missing anything. This saves time, reduces employee workloads and delivers better results. This approach also has another advantage. The tracking system runs on simple hardware and software, making it suitable for small labs.

TeachIT, another solution developed by the researchers at IPA, also saves time in day-to-day lab operations. Lab robots can be set up very quickly using automatic teach-in. To support that, barcodes are applied to multi-well plates on the work surface. A 3D camera on the robotic arm detects the markings and shows the robot where to grip.

SiLA uniform standards initiative

The equipment in many biotechnology, pharmaceutical and diagnostic labs is highly specialized and heterogeneous. The underlying IT infrastructure has usually evolved over time, making coordination between the various devices difficult or impossible. This creates the need for device drivers and platforms which comply with uniform standards. Because they can communicate with products from any other manufacturer, they support integration of heterogeneous components.

To provide a uniform basis for development of IT lab automation solutions for the labs of tomorrow, system manufacturers, software service providers, system integrators, pharmaceutical producers and biotechnology companies are working together in the SiLA Initiative (Standardization in Lab Automation) on a set of definitive standards. The goal of the initiative is seamless integration of lab equipment and IT systems sourced from different suppliers. Standardized communication interfaces, device drivers and lab consumables will be needed to accomplish that.


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