Companies Implement Internet of Things to Boost Lab Productivity

As more labs move towards finding new methods for increasing efficiency and streamlining workflows, the internet of things (IoT) is proving to have much potential. For the lab, the IoT refers to a network of laboratory devices, such as lab equipment and products, sensors and instruments, that are digitally connected. The information generated from this virtual network generally measures and reports experimental data, which can then be used to further optimize lab operations and routines.

Companies such as Eppendorf and Thermo Fisher Scientific are amongst the instrument and lab product vendors to embrace IoT, demonstrating their investments in the technology through their respective products: the VisioNize platform, which enables users to link lab equipment to central monitoring and data management software, and the E1-ClipTip (E1-CT) electronic pipette and its complementary web-based pipetting app, My Pipette Creator. Eppendorf and Thermo Fisher are working to accelerate lab productivity by staying focused on the future by providing customers with a central data storage server, intuitive user interfaces and intelligent digital connectivity for their lab devices

As Dr. Tanja Musiol, global marketing manager, Specialty Lab Products, at Eppendorf explained, the adoption of digital solutions, such as device connectivity, in the lab is more determined by a lab’s interest in streamlining workflows and operations rather than factors such as lab size or industry segment. “Like in the consumer business, so called ‘early adopters’ are showing the highest interest to change from paper work and manual steps to digital documentation, monitoring and data management,” she said. “Most probably, laboratories across all market segments with a focus to optimize their processes and workflows, and to improve productivity will be such early adopters [of VisioNize]. This is comparable with trends we see for digital documentation, monitoring and data management in general.”

Thermo Fisher reports a similar experience, with the flexibility of the E1-CT electronic pipettes and My Pipette Creator platforms appealing to a vast range of applications. “What’s really exciting and encouraging for us is that so far the E1-CT and My Pipette Creator connected pipetting solution appears to appeal to a wide variety of customer types, industries and applications,” said Tommy Bui, business development manager, Liquid Transfer, at Thermo Fisher. As Mr. Bui indicated, this wide adoption is likely due to the fact that the IoT platforms address issues that exist for any workflow that involves manual pipetting. “For example, some of our customers see the value in being able to quickly develop custom protocols,” he explained. “On the other hand, other customers value the ability to standardize processes and distribute protocols across the team.”


Digitizing Workflows

Dr. Musiol draws a comparison of adoption patterns between IoT and the emergence of the internet over 20 years ago. “The adoption of solutions like VisioNize is similar to the adoption of the internet in the 90s—customers are convinced that this is the future,” she said. The concerns about privacy and security that arise as the internet became a tool of daily use around the globe are also similar to concerns about IoT in the lab, which may affect the adoption rate as well. “Discussions and concerns about topics like data security, protection of data privacy and cyber-crime will strongly influence the adoption rate,”continued Dr. Musiol. “Adoption of digital solutions, connectivity and IoT in the lab will be highly dependent of the availability and level of support and additional technical solutions to eliminate these concerns.”

“Having a better understanding of our customers’ usage patterns will help us identify areas where we can improve and opportunities to address unmet needs.”

As Mr. Bui explained, the novelty and fundamental changes in workflow that the E1-CT and My Pipette Creator bring about created a learning curve. “We were prepared for a period of market education and missionary selling,” he said. “Thus far this year, our adoption numbers have already doubled from where we were at the end of 2017. Even so, we believe there is more opportunity for us to continue to educate the market and effectively communicate the unique benefits of our connected pipetting solution.”

Digitization provides a great deal of data that can be useful by many parties, which may raise warranted confidentiality concerns. Because of this, companies such as Thermo Fisher and Eppendorf are careful not to encroach on their customers’ data in order to protect privacy and security. “Thermo Fisher Scientific does not have access to our customers’ data that is generated using the Thermo Fisher Connected platform,” said Mr. Bui. “We take data integrity and security very seriously, and have gone to great lengths to ensure that.” Eppendorf has a similar philosophy. “Eppendorf is very aware of our customer’s data confidentiality requirements and the protection of customer data,” stated Dr. Musiol. “If a customer agrees to share data with us, we will then be able to increase customer satisfaction by using this additional insight to improve our products and service offerings.”

However, customer usage data, which does not contain the actual experimental results that users are working with and instead indicates the patterns and behaviors regarding how customers use the actual IoT platform, can provide a great deal of insight to companies, such as how to improve the platform and technical issues. “From the standpoint of customer population usage data, we believe we can utilize [this data] to ultimately benefit our customers,” Mr. Bui explained. “Connected instruments and devices give us better real-time insight on what features are more popular and which ones don’t get adopted. Having a better understanding of our customers’ usage patterns will help us identify areas where we can improve and opportunities to address unmet needs with innovative products and services.”


Prioritizing Customer Needs

Lab equipment is vital to lab workflows, and companies such as Thermo Fisher have zeroed in on what could be changed in order to optimize and streamline the processes in which lab equipment is frequently used. “Pipettes have been used for a long time in virtually every lab across a wide variety of applications so we have plenty of insights from our customers,” stated Mr. Bui. “Combined with the fact that pipetting is a very manual process, we felt that we could leverage the unique capabilities of Thermo Fisher to introduce a truly unique, yet compelling, solution that would bring more efficiency and accuracy to not only pipetting, but entire applications and workflows.”

“In their private lives, people use advanced technology and global connectivity at its best, whereas lab data processing has hardly advanced over the last years.”

Analyzing where improvements can be made is a key factor in R&D for a new technology. Mr. Bui addressed this by stating, “[Thermo Fisher’s] number one criteria to develop any new product is if we believe there is an unmet need that we can address, which will greatly benefit our customers.” The case is similar with Eppendorf, which is able to draw on the feedback from its many lab products to ascertain what improvements and changes will benefit customers. According to Dr. Musiol, Eppendorf instruments and products serve as the “backbone” of routine work done in labs, as the company’s products are used in virtually all workflow steps, from sample preparation to processing and analysis. Because of this, Dr. Musiol explained, Eppendorf has a solid understanding of how many devices and instruments are actually used. “This deep insight paves the way to map use cases exactly to our customers’ needs,” she continued. “IoT, connected devices and digital lab management will help to improve lab efficiency in the future.”

Of course, introducing a new technology designed to fundamentally change the way labs operate and conduct workflows will not come without its hurdles. “The biggest challenge for us is customer education and awareness,” explained Mr. Bui. “This is compounded by the fact that not only do we have to try and explain what our E1-CT and Creator connected pipetting solution does, but oftentimes we have to also explain how the underlying connectivity technology works.” Thermo Fisher had anticipated the need for customer education, so the company employed various methods to address concerns and teach customers, in order to ease the transition to the streamlining technology. “Additionally, we sometimes have to interact with customer’s IT staff to make them feel comfortable from a data security point of view,” he continued. “Since IoT within the lab is still a relatively new concept, not all companies have a fully developed IT strategy for integration of IoT products and services within their own corporate networks.”

This need for customer education and the unpreparedness for IoT of lab IT departments may be due to the break between how workflows tend to be executed and the accessibility of digital data technologies, as the life sciences industry is considered far behind when it comes to adopting current digital trends. “The biggest stumbling block continues to be the gap between the actual ways for lab workflow organization and the availability of state-of-the-art data processing technologies,” Dr. Musiol stated. “In their private lives, people use advanced technology and global connectivity at its best, whereas lab data processing has hardly advanced over the last years. In addition, current lab IT Infrastructure often does not meet and support the requirements of modern data and device communication.”

While there may be a learning curve for researchers to become accustomed to IoT in the lab, digitization is the future when it comes to optimizing lab routines. “Step by step, platforms such as VisioNize will be established in the lab to simplify and standardize the daily lab routine and to organize equipment, samples and data,” said Dr. Musiol. “This will enable faster and easier scientific collaboration and strongly increased productivity in the laboratories of the future.”


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