Have you ever thought about how lab design and layout affect efficiency? For many labs, the organization of benches and instrumentation happens “organically”—new equipment is often shoved into whatever space is available with little thought about how the location might impact a user’s workflows. And that can cause problems downstream, especially with something like a freezer that might be used more than originally anticipated. However, as we found out when we started introducing LEAN into our lab, by carefully analyzing lab workflows and traffic patterns and re-organizing your lab design, you can actually free up space, save time (and thus, money) and create a more pleasant work environment.
This got us thinking about lab design in general. According to a recent article in Blueprint, the CBRE Group’s online magazine which examines “the built environment’s potential and power to impact businesses, cities and people—told through the lens of commercial real estate”, many university research labs were originally modeled after Thomas Edison’s research lab in Menlo Park, NJ. However, since that time there have been a number of changes in how we conduct scientific research, both in how we organize people and in the instruments that we use.
One of the big trends in recent years is an increased focus on collaboration between individuals and work groups to foster collective thinking and creativity. This originally led to large, open-plan labs with as many as twelve or more benches in a common space. However, as more of these labs popped up, it became apparent that more people aren’t always better for collaboration. These days, open-plan labs favor smaller spaces that include only five- to eight benches, according to a Laboratory Design article, Trends in Modern Lab Design.
Another growing and important trend, especially in R&D, is flexibility. Some newer labs are being designed with movable benches, and even house services—such as gas, vacuum, and air—delivered from articulated arms fixed to the ceiling so that as the benches move, so can these fixtures. The goal is to be able to quickly and easily reconfigure a lab as the workflows change to follow new scientific directions without having to embark on major building renovations.
But one of the biggest changes—one that we are really just at the start of—is the rise of automation and the importance of computational approaches that supplement or even replace “wet lab” processes. Many manufacturing labs are already using fewer traditional lab benches by designing around enclosed cabinets that house robotic workstations. And these cabinets are getting smaller every year as we miniaturize technology and move to nanoliter assays and microfluidic, chip-based approaches.
These effects are even being seen in R&D environments and academia, as lab automation increases in flexibility and ease-of-use to support a wider range of users.
Part of the rise of automation includes the growing number of instruments that, with the push of a button, conduct a sequence of steps that were once done by hand on a bench, further reducing the need for individual scientists to have large, dedicated bench space. Even computers are being downsized to tablets, mobile phones, and specialized wearable devices.
So, what will the lab of the future look like? Fifty, thirty, perhaps even as little as twenty years from now, will we need benches and wet lab space? The Blueprint article postulates that the lab of the future isn’t even a lab, that scientists will just collect data as they live their lives. You could argue that this is already true, at least for certain key steps for a number of different types of studies—DNA sequencing is just one example that quickly comes to mind. But I’m not sure I’m ready to embrace a completely bench-free biology lab.
There are many fascinating resources about lab design trends and the lab of the future. Here are a few that informed this article.
From the CBRE Group:
From Lab Design
Pia Abola is a scientist who walked out of the lab five years ago and stumbled into the world of marketing. She never had to look back because it turns out that she’s mostly doing the same things–both her lab work and her marketing work revolve around signalling and information transfer. Chemical, biochemical, behavioral, or digital signals, the math is the same — it’s just scale and medium that differs.