Gone are the days when clinical labs had to rarely or with long timeframes make changes to the configuration of their workspaces. Today, frequent and rapid change to clinical lab workspaces is the rule and not the exception.

By Gavin Finn

Skilled labor shortages. Rapid advances in assay development and authorization. Innovations in instrument technologies. Dynamic and variable demand for unpredictable volumes of tests. Changing requirements for sample and consumable storage environments. Evolving safety standards and protocols.

These are some of the challenges that lab operations managers and clinical directors are now facing—many of these changes in the markets are driving immediate requirements for new thinking in how labs are organized, configured, and updated. Rather than creating laboratory layouts and designs that are fixed, or at best difficult to change, it is now imperative to consider the current configuration of labs as only that—the current state, rather than the permanent state. It is clear that lab operations, configurations, and workflows will be subject to the inevitability of swift and regular modification. How, then, can managers prepare and adapt?

Plan for Frequent (and Sometimes Rapid) Change

In the past, lab managers and planners had the luxury of time when designing and preparing changes to their physical and functional configurations. Key requirements seldom changed instantly, which meant that most of the time growth could be planned, and changes were seldom unexpected. When conditions are predictable then planning can take place over a period of weeks or even months. It is acceptable, in these situations, to use labor-intensive and time-consuming methods to determine how to update the location of instruments, furniture, casework, equipment, utilities, even walls and doors in the lab space. Because this process occurred infrequently, the investment in time, capital, and human resources was not a major constraint on the operational or financial success of the lab.

For once-in-a-great-while tasks, using post-it notes on a wall, or cardboard boxes to simulate the lab layout, may be an acceptable method to plan for a change—resulting in a solution that works. Recent reviews have shown, however, that even in those cases when an updated layout was implemented, local changes (say the updating of instruments in a specific workflow or the repositioning of a small amount of casework) have been found to have caused unintended consequences to other parts of the lab operations, which have to be addressed separately.

It is also true that with these manual processes, as soon as a new layout or design for an existing operating lab is found—one that works—planners typically stop there, without trying to optimize or determine the best configuration. While this leads to inefficiencies, they’re often hidden, because once a new configuration has been implemented, the team is back to their “day job” and time does not allow for significant analysis and necessary re-configuration.

The world has changed, and the requirements are no longer static or even predictable. Not only do labs need to constantly respond to changes (e.g., in volumes of assays) they also need to be ready to rapidly adapt to brand circumstances (e.g., COVID-19, supply chain challenges, etc.).  And they have to constantly balance automation and human workflow trade-offs, particularly in light of significant fluctuations in the labor markets. In addition, labs are often caught up in industry consolidations, requiring that some labs take on new or additional services.

What this means is that the operations and planning staff are now constantly evolving the state of the lab—sometimes in major ways, and often in small increments. These evolutions are all designed to accommodate responses to industry or market conditions, but also within the constraints of internal factors. New layouts and processes must now optimize not only the sample workflow, but also the human workflow, while maximizing quality and minimizing errors.

Don’t Digitize, Digitally Transform

New digital planning and visualization tools and technologies have emerged (including augmented and virtual reality,) allowing for clinicians, facilities managers, technicians, and instrument/equipment vendors to all collaborate interactively. In the lab updating and planning phases, this digital infrastructure has resulted in rapid identification of multiple configurations that deliver the required volume, assay mix, and labor contributions, allowing labs to frequently change, all within a very short period of time.

Because the digital tools allow for rapid simulation of changes in physical and functional layouts, they are ideal for allowing multiple constituents in the process to work together to evaluate new ideas without disrupting the current workflows. 

While traditional CAD software has been in use for many parts of the lab design process over many years, an entirely new category of digital visualization and planning solutions have recently evolved. Intended for use by lab professionals, rather than architects or engineers, these tools have proven to be the key to an altogether innovative approach—rather than simply digitizing the existing analog processes. This new approach has three key principles:

  1. Simplicity (ease-of-use)—for teams creating or evaluating new or changed layouts, and for all others who need to see what the proposed changes would look like and mean for their functions
  2. Flexibility and extensibility—easily adaptable to adding new capabilities or equipment, changing sizes of existing or new items in a lab, modifying existing configurations, and comparing them to other proposals, adding complex features, etc.;
  3. Scalability—from working with individual, simple one-room labs, to entire systems of labs with multiple locations

The results of these digital transformations have included:

  • Reduced cycle times—rather than spending time physically laying out cardboard models, or working with sketches, long iterations with engineers/architects, and time-consuming manual processes, the digital workflow can be accomplished in minutes or hours, reducing the typical weeks-long planning and approval process to a few short days
  • Reduced costs—because of the simplicity of these tools, they are easy for lab professionals to use in s short amount of time, eliminating the need to dedicate a great deal of labor costs and related facilities costs
  • Superior workflows and optimized lab operations—because the digital environment allows for rapid generation of multiple potential configurations that can be evaluated quickly, improved efficiency and effectiveness in the new layouts and configurations are achieved, resulting in improved quality

Digital Twins

This new class of lab planning solutions operates in a manner, allowing for planning of greenfield spaces or reconfiguration of existing spaces with the same ease and speed:

  • By either importing floor plans or simply sketching them directly, a plan view (2D top-view) of the facility is easily created
  • This view incorporates building features such as walls, doors, windows, etc.
  • Layouts incorporate lab utilities, such as water, power, etc., and also locations of standard items such as wash stations, etc.
  • Furniture, fixtures, and casings are added from a visual library, moved, deleted, or re-sized using drag-and-drop user interface functionality
  • Equipment and instruments are similarly added to the space, moved, removed, or connected to other devices
  • Workflows are easily defined within the spaces

While all of these lab planning steps are being taken, these advanced digital solutions also add to the value of the experience with the inclusion of many innovations:

  • 3D dynamic lab visualizations are automatically generated in real time, allowing users to see what the space would look like from any place in the lab space itself
  • Lab technician avatars can be placed in the space to understand the human workflow and comfort levels
  • Walk-through and fly-though paths are created to allow for the simulation of how the space is traversed—either by the staff or from the perspective of a sample

The digital nature of these advanced systems include built-in object-attribute-value data structures, which make it possible to use these visualizations for valuable communication functions such as:

  • Calculations of power consumption
  • Calculations of water and waste utilization and/or generation
  • Sample/assay throughput calculators

Immersive Visualization and the Metaverse

While the nature of the digital infrastructure is inherently multi-functional, the fact that these systems are designed for different users and use-cases means also that they are accessible and usable in different ways.

For example, the labs, configurations, and workflows can all be viewed from multiple dimensions, such as 2D plan view and 3D interactive. These are all accessible from an internet browser, or running offline as installed applications on iPads, laptops, and Surface Tablets, making them useful while also walking around a physical facility.

Most interestingly, however, is the fact that these digital twins can also be viewed as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences. AR is the process of overlaying digital objects into a mobile device’s view of the real world. Imagine, for example, putting a digital version of a centrifuge on a real workbench, and being able to use an iPad to walk around the workbench, and seeing the combination of the actual objects (workbench) and the digital object (centrifuge) in the same screen as if they are both there in the real world at the same time. This can also be done for an entire lab layout (either in full scale, or in reduced size to fit on a conference table, for example.)

VR is the immersion of a viewer in a fully digital space, blocking out the view of the physical world. This is usually done with a headset that covers the user’s eyes, so that they only see the screens inside the headset. The three-dimensional immersion provides the illusion that the user is “inside” the digital space, and can move around and interact with objects in that space.

It is clear that both these technologies have huge implications for the transformation of lab planning and layout. Being able to see the placement, fit, and access to a new instrument in an existing lab using AR, for example has innumerable benefits. Putting people in a VR experience of a future state of a lab can immediately help understand workflows, space proportions, and other aspects of lab operations that are difficult to imagine.

AR and VR capabilities are critical elements of what has become known as the “metaverse,” which is really another way of explaining a shared, interactive digital environment.

Rapid Change and Real-Time Collaboration

It is rare that only one individual or group is involved in, or impacted by changes to a lab’s configuration. Usually, when modifications to a layout are proposed (or a new lab is planned) it is passed around to the variety of teams involved and impacted, and they provide their feedback. Most often, this is a serial process—one then the next, and so on.

With digital twin technologies, it is possible to consolidate this process and reduce the overall review and revision time by facilitating collaborative reviews. Importantly, with the right multi-user concurrent technologies, these collaborative reviews can happen within the same digital space at the same time. Imagine having all stakeholders reviewing the same (digital) plan, providing their feedback, experiencing the space from their perspective, and optimizing the workflow to accommodate all aspects of high performing labs—all operating together in real time.

The New Digital-First World Is Here—Is Your Lab Ready?

 Even for labs with little or no experience with digital transformation, the path to breakthrough improvements can be achieved incrementally—small steps in using even simple digital tools to evaluate alternatives or plan upgrades can lay the groundwork for a comprehensive and revolutionary approach to the next generation of agility and flexibility.

With this new interactive team-based approach to workflow and physical lab configuration planning and review, the result is improved workflows through a better layout and configuration; this yields more efficient lab operations, as well as the ability to provide superior customer service and higher quality, even when circumstances and customer requirements change frequently.

The key to enabling these results is a platform that transforms the process of lab planning from sequential to concurrent, from analog to digital, from good enough to optimized, and from static to dynamic.

Featured Image: Rapid change is the name of the game when it comes to updating laboratory layouts using a combination of 3D, augmented reality, and virtual reality tools. Photo Collage: Kaon Interactive

About the Author

Gavin Finn is the CEO of Kaon Interactive, the global leader in interactive sales and marketing software. Kaon’s applications, including its renowned Lab Design Tool, serve life sciences, health tech and bio firms including Quest Labs, Thermo-Fisher Scientific, Siemens Healthineers, Diasorin and more. Learn more at: www.kaon.com