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Revamping R&D: The New Laboratory In Your Pocket?

Mon, 03/10/2014 - 9:06am
Paul Denny-Gouldson, Vice President, Solution Strategy, IDBS

iPad with eworkbook screenshot. Image: IDBSThe nature of science shares striking similarities across many industry verticals. Whether it’s biologics, chemicals or new product formulations, they are all performed with a high degree of similarity from company to company. This is exemplified by the fact that R&D informatics platforms such as LIMS, ELNs and SDMS are used, and provide real benefits in all science-related sectors. Although this seems fairly straightforward, things are changing. Organizations are under increasing business pressure to innovate faster and improve efficiency and throughput, all while boosting profitability. With all of these challenges ahead, they’re changing the way they work and the informatics they use. One way of innovating is by becoming mobile.

Tapping into technologies
Against this backdrop companies are turning to new technologies to meet their business demands. Mobile technologies rank top of the list with the promise of “on-the-go” data and applications. High-performance computing infrastructure now means massive data analytics at the stroke of a key—this was once the realm of specialist computer science. Everything as-a-service and the “Internet of things” provide the possibility of an instant online connection to anything, anywhere, anytime. These technologies coupled with business strategies—such as outsourcing, real collaboration and 24/7 follow-the-sun laboratory processes—means the industry is trying to stay ahead to keep pace with change.  

Mobile technologies, in particular, are enhancing today’s laboratory environment. Researchers just want to do the science. They now wish to capture a piece of information and upload it to data systems automatically, without the rigmarole of writing it down at the instrument, carrying the paper around, getting to a PC and then entering the data. There’s also the use of tablets and mobile apps for managers who typically want to review and approve work from the laboratory on the move. The latest mobile technologies and better browser functionalities are now making this a reality.

Browser-based R&D at your fingertips
There are many applications that scientists and engineers are required to use. Every day they capture information, data, context and ideas and relate these to something else. Most informatics systems have been developed and used as PC clients where all the features and functions are in one place and accessible, but a reasonable size screen and computer power is needed to run them. To date, this approach to scientific application design and building has delivered measurable business benefits, boosting efficiency and throughput, and shouldn’t be overlooked. Nevertheless, browser technologies can be used to optimize applications and user experience. The Web has been around for many years now and so have Web browsers, but they haven’t always been suitable for use in certain applications or within some scientific domains. Reporting, dash-boarding and information dissemination are all really well suited to Web browser technology and they’re now features of most Web-based solutions.

Computationally and usability-intensive functions have been a little more difficult to optimize until the arrival of better browsers. Simple features such as drag-and-drop have been missing or weren’t intuitive to users. This has hampered the acceptance of browser-based ELNs and LIMS, but with the advent of HTML5 and the evolution of browsers a much richer and optimized experience can now be delivered to scientists and researchers. Tools like IDBS’ E-WorkBook Suite have evolved from thick client PC-based applications to Web browser-based applications. And in offering specific in browser functions like annotation tools and office document rendering and manipulation, the user acceptance is high.

True mobile working
Scientist and researchers’ diverse workflows and software application experience demands can now be delivered via browser technologies. Getting them working with mobile solutions is the next step to moving the paperless laboratory to the mobile-augmented laboratory. However, there are some aspects of mobile technology that have to be considered.

Security is a critical concern and the policy of how, what data and where data can be consumed needs to be addressed and properly managed. This isn’t just a requirement for mobile aspects, but also the changing face of collaboration between organizations. Companies are looking to partner and collaborate on a massive scale with a significant number of different partners in an effort to improve innovation. They all need, or want, access to specific data and context. The days of data “inside the castle walls” are gone. This requires a rethink of security and how it’s applied. One aspect of this means that the data needs to be properly categorized and managed so it can be shared easily  and securely, without undermining the corporate IP and knowledge.

The other aspect that needs to be considered with mobile in the laboratory is the eventual emergence of lots of apps that will do specific tasks and elements of a workflow. These will need to be strung together in a coherent manner, andthey need to store the data in a way which ensures it’s consumable by other apps in the workflow. This is the foundation of a true mobile laboratory since the data is what drives R&D organizations’ decisions.

A final aspect of mobile technology that often gets overlooked is the need for a screen that works with gloves. Most gloves in the laboratory are made of latex, which doesn’t work well with tablet and mobile touch screens. There are options like styluses or using different kinds of gloves, but these need to be considered before significant budget is spent on new tablets. In addition, these tools must be made impervious to chemicals as well as ensuring that, if they go into a restricted area, they stay there. PCs are difficult to move but tablets are very easy to carry out of a Biosafety CAT 3 laboratory.

The right tools for the job
Lots of apps need to be part of a platform that has a data management backbone to capture and store data with context in a manner that is consumable by other apps and systems. This is a prerequisite for any mobile-based strategy. Data without context and structure is essentially useless.

Mobile apps should be there to augment the researcher’s working environment and activities, rather than act as the sole place to work. There will always be requirements from users to leverage a more feature-rich interface at a workstation, where more information can be aggregated, analyzed, visualized and explored easily. Simple tasks like signing off experiments, reviewing and tagging or registering a data point or inventory item are all ideal candidates for mobile or tablet-based tasks.

The next step could, perhaps, be taking the mobile technology and making it wearable. Google Glass and wearable technologies that monitor our health are becoming more mainstream, so it makes sense that this could be taken into the laboratory. How this will happen is another question entirely as currently the costs and capabilities are a little prohibitive. That said, it isn’t too dissimilar to the web and mobile technology arena just a few years ago.

For now though, mobile science looks like it will deliver great promise. The market is looking more towards specific apps for note taking or interacting with simple instruments rather than having access to a whole feature-rich application on a mobile device. This is the ideal approach for data capture and for breaking down the workflow into bite-size chunks. Taking this pragmatic route means avoiding cramming desktop tools onto devices which aren’t ergonomically or functionally able to cope, andensures scientists and researchers can benefit from the increased efficiencies and data sharing which mobile working can offer.

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