In my previous article about the digital lab, I focused on the role and importance of data in the laboratory. However, data-driven decision making not only requires a stable and harmonized database, but also the appropriate technical architecture to process the data effectively. A digital laboratory platform is required for this.
Now is the time for launching integrated lab informatics platforms in R&D labs, however major technical challenges are associated with doing so. Nevertheless, life science CIOs will not be able to solve their most pressing problems, e.g. faster development of new products, maximization of the potential of existing research results, or close strategic collaboration with the business, without digital laboratory platforms.
The status quo in most R&D labs: Many different lab software vendors, many more different lab software products, but no red thread
The digital structure of laboratories is usually characterized by a large number of laboratory software products from different manufacturers. This stems from the fact that in the past an IT strategy for the laboratory was given less importance than would have been necessary for building an efficient and logically structured laboratory IT architecture from the beginning. For example, laboratory staff were often allowed to buy software products that they needed and that seemed appropriate to them. However, compatibility with existing software products was seldom taken into account. This ultimately led to the development of individual digital silos in the laboratories, which could also encompass entire laboratories, making it even more difficult to collaborate and exchange information with other laboratories and departments.
Breaking up these digital silos and converting them into a uniform digital platform represents a main task in laboratory digitization. Since laboratory software manufacturers have great expertise particularly in the area of their software functionality, it is advisable to include a provider of consulting services in the field of laboratory digitization. They will develop the strategy, i.e. the common thread, for laboratory digitization and ensure that this strategy takes into account individual laboratory needs, existing software products, the latest digital technologies, and also the goals of the business.
Digital lab platform requirements
As part of strategy development, each detail of how the platform should be integrated into the existing digital structure of the laboratory must be discussed. The requirements for the platform can be as broad as the labs and their research foci themselves. Some possible platform features are listed below:
Software hosted on the platform
All software packages required in the laboratory should be hosted on the platform and should be flexibly available to employees using the SaaS model. These include, for example, ELN, LIMS, chromatography data systems, mass spectrometry software, image evaluation tools, but also, for example, highly specialized AI drug discovery applications.
A modular structure of software packages is generally considered advantageous, so that employees only use that software module (e.g. in case of chromatography data systems, the module for device control, the module for capturing measured data points, the module for data evaluation and reporting) that they need for their respective work step. In addition, a data harmonization app could be integrated into the platform, via which, if necessary, data formats can be converted into the desired standards – a basic requirement for the valid comparison of experimental data. Moreover, a quality module can ensure the quality standards required in the lab (21 CFR Part 11, GLP, etc.) are implemented at an early stage. Finally, one should consider connecting the digital laboratory platform to the relevant business software systems (e.g. ERP, MES, etc.) to enable the direct flow of information. Connections of apps, software and data can be achieved via an API Hub and iPaaS (Integration Platform-as-a-Service).
IoT-readiness of the platform
Analytical and non-analytical devices enable a wide variety of experiments to be carried out in the laboratory. The demand for virtual device representations in the cloud is increasing, which is why the digital laboratory platform should also be IoT-ready. In this way, laboratory workers can also control devices remotely and monitor their experiments remotely. Appropriate augmented reality applications can further improve the user experience.
Data analytics on the platform
Device and experimental measurement data should be accessible and visualized via the platform. The platform should also provide various data analytics tools such that data can be evaluated in a way that is tailored specifically to the respective research question. Data catalog as well as data governance regulations should be available on the platform, which can be used to identify where data is stored and who is officially responsible for the management of this data.
Connect and collaborate!
In summary, many laboratories today lack a digital laboratory platform on their way to full digitization. A platform provides employees all the software they need on demand and connects the information available in the laboratory, so that existing silos can be overcome and interdisciplinary collaboration can take place. In some laboratories, a LIMS is used today, which is supposed to serve as a digital network structure. However, the functionalities of a LIMS are not comprehensive enough, because a LIMS, as described above, is one of the software packages that can be used in the laboratory but does not represent a digital laboratory platform in the actual sense. Only a digital platform will provide a high-level overall picture of research data and hence offer real laboratory digitization. In addition, the quality of the data will improve considerably, since all employees work with the same data and there will no longer be local copies on local computers.
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 Gartner, Inc. | G00382415, August 19, 2019
 Gartner, Inc. | G00709959, February 7, 2019