The lab of the future will have lab equipment that looks mostly like that in current labs, but when you get into the details there will be many changes.


Flexible casework designs now include overhead service carriers ("wings”) that are evolving to include drop-down services for electrical outlets. The service carriers are often connected to a grid of service supplies, allowing them to be easily and quickly reconfigured as the casework is moved. Photo: Henn Architekten/Science to Business Center Nanotronics. Click to enlarge

The equipment in research laboratories hasn’t changed substantially over the past 40 years. Casework has gone through cycles of metal, wood, and plastic materials more like fashion trends than anything else. The vast majority of fume hood systems are still primarily constant volume—some inroads have been made with variable air volume (VAV) and low-flow systems, but the substantial initial costs of these systems has made change-outs a relatively low frequency occurrence. And perceived safety issues with the new low-flow fume hoods still continue to limit their growth.

Some changes have been made in the area of access to gases, vacuum, compressed air, and electrical outlets with overhead “wing” systems, but these initially European-based designs have only recently been installed in new lab projects.

Other lab equipment, such as lighting, safety systems (eye-wash stations, showers, and fire extinguishing systems), storage systems, sinks, coolers/heaters, waste systems, furniture, flooring, ceiling tiles, and non-analytical bench top instruments (stirrers, centrifuges, distillation systems, pipetting systems, etc.) have changed little over the past 40 years. Most changes have been in materials with high-performance polymers overtaking glass in most non-heating applications and stain- and scratch-resistant coatings being applied to numerous surfaces. But even the materials changes have basically matured and the polymer replacements are unlikely to be replaced anytime soon.

Some of the most visible changes have been in computer and software systems with laptop computers now proliferating most labs. But these aren’t categorized as lab equipment.


Sophisticated instrumentation, like this state-of-the-art FEI Titan scanning transmission electron microscope in Hamish Fraser's lab at Ohio State Univ., require extensive lab equipment support systems like vacuum and conditioned power supplies. They also require isolation systems from the noise or vibration generating equipment or other analytical instruments. Click to enlarge

Bar-coding systems mark a major change in lab equipment over the past 10 years that has simplified the tracking and monitoring of large numbers of samples. There are additional technologies in development that are likely to expand this area to further shrink the size of the bar coding label and enhance its usefulness. In the same technology arena, there are RFID (radio frequency identification) systems that are in broad use in the commercial and industrial sector that have yet to be integrated into lab environments. The cost, ease-of-use, and reliability of these systems continue to improve and researchers are likely to see implementations of these in the lab for inventorying of instrumentation and high-cost materials as one of the first applications.


Automation systems made a considerable impact in the drug discovery and biotechnology arena over the past 10 years where large numbers of samples need to be processed for combinatorial analyses. Automation technology was mostly responsible for the sequencing of the human genome early in the 21st century.

These automation systems have mostly matured, and there have been few new life science-based offerings over the past several years. The life science applications of these systems are still time consuming, and the capital equipment is costly and requires large amounts of space, set-up, and maintenance. Researchers are now applying smaller systems with microfluidic operations that use less sample volumes, fewer solvents, and require less cleanup and waste disposal.

The overall cost savings with microfluidic sample processing systems is enormous, along with the ability to process more samples in a shorter period of time. These types of systems are likely to proliferate in the lab of the future, and the large automation systems are likely to mostly disappear except for specialized applications.

Automation systems in other areas will continue to be evaluated. They are inherently faster, more efficient, more precise, more sensitive, and, with their ability to operate 24/7, they provide more throughput than manual systems. The final decision in each case will ultimately be based upon economics.

Automation systems, for example, are used to process small numbers of samples of foods, minerals, metals, and other inorganic materials for mostly quality assurance applications. These applications are not as easily changed to microfluidic systems and will continue unchanged for at least the next five or more years. Some of these systems are tied to x-ray analyses, which are even less likely to be changed.



Because of their high initial cost and installation costs, most researchers still have mostly fixed casework systems. However, as new labs are opened, about half of the new casework installed is generally some kind of movable, wheeled system providing increased lab adaptability and flexibility. Click to enlarge

The ability to quickly change over from one research project to another has become one of the dominant issues in the design of new research labs. These flexibility demands have made more recent changes in the design of casework systems than any other lab equipment component. While two-thirds of all research labs still have 80% or more fixed casework systems, the trend toward movable casework systems continues to erode that ratio. Most current lab configurations still install a substantial amount of fixed casework along the walls of the new lab, but often leave an open “dance floor” where flexible systems can be positioned.

In some of these flexible casework designs, the change has been as simplistic as just adding lockable wheels to undercounter cabinets. In other situations, completely new casework systems have been custom-designed for one specific application. The open flexible design at R&D’s 2004 Lab of the Year, the James H. Clark Center at Stanford Univ., Calif., the custom designs extended into office systems and were offered in a catalog manner to each researcher.

The Stanford systems included both dry and wet lab systems. Most flexible casework systems offered by current suppliers either don’t offer or don’t sell very many wet lab systems. The Stanford wet lab systems connect to overhead waste systems through a pumping system within each casework unit. The initial cost, installation, and continuing maintenance issues with movable wet lab systems will limit their implementation for some time.

The Stanford system also initially included movable fume hoods with their open flexible design. There were initial concerns about the safety of these systems with regard to changing air flows and the possibility of unique situations causing blowback. The extreme flexibility of the Stanford system was largely an experiment in lab design and many lessons are likely to be learned over the next several years.


Overhead service carriers, or “wings,” were initially seen in European research labs starting about five years ago. They have taken over the flexible lab marketplace and numerous suppliers are now available. These carriers come in all different configurations and can include snorkel or hooded exhaust systems, and any number of gas, water, vacuum, electricity, water drains, or air hookups, depending upon the individual application.


Flexible casework systems now involve wet benches (foreground) that include integrated waste pumps and overhead waste plumbing and disposal systems that are integrated into the overhead service carrier systems. Photo: Waldner. Click to enlarge

These carriers are often designed to work off of a grid supply system that allows the whole “wing” to be easily repositioned to a different section of the lab. They can work with or without drop ceilings, although they mostly are used in areas without a drop ceiling so that repositioning is more easily implemented. Most initial systems were positioned relatively high, requiring hookups to be made by researchers standing on an elevated surface. More recent systems have flexible drops from these service carriers eliminating this inconvenience.


The whole idea of using a fume hood is to safely dispose of potentially noxious gases created during a chemical reaction. A fairly good safety and reliability record has been established over the past 40 years with recognized suppliers of traditional constant volume fume hoods. Over the past 10 years, however, the very energy costs of using these hoods have come into question, especially as energy costs have continued to escalate. The cost of just operating dozens of single-pass constant volume fume hoods in a large research facility can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars on an annual basis, not to mention the high cost of the large air handling and humidification/dehumidification systems.

Substantial research has been performed over this time on the concept of low flow fume hoods (face velocities of <100 ft/min face velocity versus the traditional >100 ft/min “standard”). However, the safety controversy has limited their broad implementation. In R&D Magazine’s researcher survey, respondents listed the safety of the following fume hoods as follows (1 = good and 5 = poor):

Constant volume 1.79
Two-position constant volume 2.03
Variable air volume 1.99
Low-flow (<100 ft/min) 2.89

Looking at the energy efficiency of these systems, the ratings came out as:
Constant volume 3.04
Two-position constant volume 2.53
Variable air volume 2.10
Low-flow (<100 ft/min) 1.92

Looking at the initial cost of these systems, the ratings came out as:
Constant volume 2.24
Two-position constant volume 2.44
Variable air volume 2.72
Low-flow (<100 ft/min) 2.30

It appears that the users mostly understand the issues involved, except for maybe the real initial cost of these systems that should include the cost of the requisite air handling systems.