The Internet of Things is broadly defined as “the interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.” But is this capability really a new phenomenon in the scientific laboratory?
Firms have been working with instruments and hardware for decades to define and structure assays that are then used to drive plate readers and other instruments. These instruments in turn produce data that is sent back to the system for further analysis and data storage, or pushed into data warehouses for future use and later analysis. The intersection of informatics, networks and robotics is not new in laboratories.
So, what is new? Where things are changing at pace and scale is the number, diversity and availability of devices that can now be deployed into a laboratory that has IoT capabilities. Where in the past these systems were discrete and expensive, they are now cheaper, broader and more accessible. This brings enormous benefits, but also come with risks and wasted opportunities if things are not considered properly as part of a comprehensive strategy.
IoT in the laboratory
The primary benefit of the IoT is automation. A smart warehouse with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags in boxes means people no longer need to scan all boxes that come into a warehouse as the system can automatically track and update inventories based on the information it reads from the chips. These and similar experiences open a whole world of possibilities for consumers and businesses alike.
The laboratory is no different. For instance, balances and bench-top instruments can notify systems if they are out of calibration, preventing valuable time and materials being wasted. In addition, if a hazardous material is being used, a container could automatically let the user know the correct procedure or handling method for that material by updating the end users’ screen immediately. Combining many of the different examples above can create a streamlined and highly efficient working experience, potentially improving lab safety and efficiency.
Many labs would baulk at the cost of replacing all devices with newer smarter options. Yes, new systems are often easier to use and, with the right infrastructure, can be easily added into the business operation. But in most cases, businesses are in a transitional phase requiring them to update current systems, procedures and infrastructure to really use the new capabilities of these devices and services.
This is often challenging as it requires a root and branch analysis of existing laboratory systems to work out where these new pieces can be added. If this isn’t done then often you will have an IoT-enabled set of devices and services that can’t communicate with the rest of your infrastructure, providing another island of data.
Cost versus benefit
Just about every process or device could be upgraded or made “smarter,” but the cost-benefit of doing this varies significantly and to really unlock the experience all parts need to be considered. In some cases the whole process needs to be upgraded to provide value. When considering IoT you must consider the whole picture and work through the most valuable pieces to you as a business.
Below are some important aspects to consider when it comes to implementing IoT in the laboratory:
Cost: The cost doesn’t always justify the investment, from lighting and security systems to robots and wearables. Be very clear on where the value will come from and measure the ROI.
Vision: It is important to understand what you want. The options are vast, and once you have the vision you can then look at the costs and roadmap that can deliver the value.
Users: In most cases, there will still be the human element somewhere in the process. Bring the users into the process and ensure what you have created genuinely adds value. For instance, giving someone an iPad to walk around a busy lab may not actually be the best approach (from either a safety or productivity perspective).
Networks: In most cases this gets overlooked, but a strong network is critical to the success of an IoT strategy. Without robust connectivity information gets lost, processes get delayed and investment is wasted.
Security: This was a major concern, but the effort and awareness of IoT security is high and businesses now have access to expertise and technologies that can better manage the security of their IoT devices and environment.
Informatic: Devices are useless if you don’t have a modern informatics platform in which the data can be analysed, disseminated, shared and managed. The informatics platform also needs to be able to drive decisions and data across the network.
Integrations: It is unlikely that you’ll buy everything from a single vendor, so it is vital that systems do not become siloed.
Hardware: Many providers can now supply upgrades to older technologies that can make them “smarter” at a fraction of the cost of replacing expensive capital equipment. It is important to assess the correct path for each instrument and to weigh this against the cost of replacement/upgrade.
Communication and remote working: With the explosion of external collaborative working it is important to consider the remote working aspects of the lab.
While the IoT has been a feature in laboratories for over a decade, developments in diversity and availability of devices is opening potential benefits for research organizations. However, this also brings challenges and considerations – which require comprehensive strategic assessments for the IoT strategy to be successful.
Laurence Painell, is VP of Marketing, at IDBS.
Five weeks to go: On 12 & 13 September 2017, Internet of Business will be holding its Internet of Health EMEA event in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. This event will focus on revolutionizing health through IoT for improved insight and patient care.