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Informatics

Connecting the lab, down to the pipette

Linking lab instruments and managing their data were the talk of the Analytica trade show

by Alex Scott
April 30, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 18

 

In a reflection of the transformation taking place in scientific research, Analytica, Germany’s huge, biennial lab instrument show, is no longer just about the latest lab hardware; it’s become a software expo too. Yes, the show’s halls are still full of shiny new instruments with world-record capabilities, but many now come with touch screens and Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity. If Analytica’s exhibitors have their way, labs where even the fridges are generating data will soon be the norm.

More than 35,000 visitors made the journey to pack Analytica’s huge exhibition halls and conference rooms in sun-drenched Munich earlier this month. It’s a good place for lab managers to scope out whether, among other things, they need to buy in to the idea of the connected lab, even for the most mundane equipment.

The pitch from hardware manufacturers at Analytica was that digitally connected equipment has a host of advantages. It can generate data needed to reproduce experiments or verify experimental conditions; instrument maintenance and management can be done more easily, sometimes even off site; and data can readily be shared among colleagues or research partners.

Making laboratory instruments digitally connectable costs money, but manufacturers say it presents savings over the long term and will free up scientists to spend time solving scientific problems rather than preparing, operating, or fixing their equipment.

Demand for connected instruments is growing across the board but particularly in the genomics field, where large amounts of data must be handled, and in the food industry, which is becoming ever more automated and regulated, said Suneet Chadha, vice president and general manager for discovery and analytical solutions at PerkinElmer.

Lab instrumentation behemoth Thermo Fisher Scientific, with its gargantuan show stand, chose Analytica as its launch point for “between 15 and 20” products, including a new gas chromatography/mass spectrometry system with unparalleled sensitivity, said Dan Shine, president of analytical instruments for the company.

For most of the models, “connectivity is key,” Shine said. “The scientific community is rapidly adopting cloud-based approaches.” This is especially the case in pharmaceutical research, where more regulations are coming, he said.

Even the most prosaic pieces of lab equipment can now be digitally connected. One of Thermo Fisher’s new cloud-connected products was the latest version of its ClipTip electronic pipette. “This is a high-impact device that is already making a difference in so many labs,” Shine said. The firm estimates an 80% reduction in the time it takes to transfer samples from microcentrifuge tubes to 96-well plates.

Like most other major instrument firms, Thermo Fisher in recent years has boosted its capability in software for instruments through a series of acquisitions. But smaller firms are also in the mix when it comes to connectivity. One of them, family-owned Gilson of Middleton, Wis., had Analytica visitors queuing to try its new Bluetooth-connected Pipetman, which interacts in real time with an app on a tablet.

Your life becomes so much easier. You will have fewer errors and better results once you have connected all your data points.
Matthias Odenweller, software engineer, Evonik Industries

“This will record everything immediately so you don’t need to write it all up in a lab book,” said Tiphaine de Jouvencel, product manager for Gilson.

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Analytica also featured an array of handheld instruments that can connect not just to an in-house data management system but also directly to the internet via cloud-based data systems. One example was the Nirone, a handheld, battery-powered spectrometer introduced by Spectral Engines, a spin-off from the Finnish research institute VVT. The firm has already sold more than 1,000 Nirone devices at about $3,700 apiece since launching it at the start of the year.

The portable, web-connected device could revolutionize analysis of foodstuffs and the production of agricultural goods by enabling rapid sample evaluation in the field, claimed Dominik G. Rabus, a country manager at Spectral Engines. Identification of drugs is another potential application; a U.S. police force is testing the device on illegal drugs, he said.

Credit: Alex Scott/C&EN
Join this story’s author, Alex Scott, for a look at some of the connected instruments from Analytica that could show up in the labs of tomorrow.

The spectrometer and its data are managed via a smartphone app, so it doesn’t require a chemist or even a scientist to operate it, Rabus said. Analysis is also simplified by sending data to the cloud. “With cloud computing, you can compare one spectrometer’s data with another, and you can find trends in patterns from reference data,” he said.

The technology attracted significant attention at Analytica. It caught the eye of, among others, Grégory Schmauch, a culinary chemist for the Munich-based cooking appliance firm Rational. He was considering applying the Nirone to help optimize food preparation.

As connected instruments increase in number, efficiently analyzing the growing volume of data is key, according to Christian Decker, a professor of software and process engineering at Reutlingen University, who gave a talk at Analytica.

Big data was the buzz phrase back in 2013, and the concept has since become mainstream, Decker said. But the focus is now shifting toward “smart data,” data that is understood even before it is gathered so value can be created from it. The starting point is to ensure that the data has context, he said.

“Archimedes took a bath before, you know. Everyone is looking for that eureka moment, but it requires contextualizing data,” Decker said.

A simple way that labs can start to make their data smarter is by connecting multiple instruments to a data management system, Decker said.

Evonik Industries, for example, is in the process of connecting its spectrometers. As soon as three or more spectrometers are connected to a network, lab technicians can validate calibrations and even do predictive maintenance, said Matthias Odenweller, a software engineer at the German chemical maker. A networked spectrometer can also send data to an information management system, where reference values and lab methods can be viewed.

“Your life becomes so much easier. You will have fewer errors and better results once you have connected all your data points,” Odenweller said.

When Evonik’s spectrometers are all connected, their availability for experiments will increase, he said, because users can easily identify when they are available and preventive maintenance can be scheduled to reduce downtime. The potential cost savings are substantial, he said. Connecting all data-gathering lab instruments to a data management system is now a goal for Evonik and a work in progress, Odenweller said.

In a world where lab instruments are being connected to the web, one thing that can’t be just a work in progress is data security. Unprompted, several instrument makers interviewed by C&EN at Analytica flagged the importance of data protection and its pivotal role in keeping scientists’ results secure.

Numerous cases of data infringement or customers being shut down have been in the news, PerkinElmer’s Chadha said. Below the surface, instrument makers are paddling furiously to ensure that their products and related software keep customers from being affected in this way.

On show at Analytica were thousands of shiny new machines that, thanks to connectivity, can do experiments more quickly and with ease. But connecting these instruments comes with risk. “The new big thing is protecting data,” Chadha said.

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