How the pandemic enhanced the transformation of labs towards a digital-first approach

Creating a digital ecosystem for seamless and efficient laboratory operation is now more crucial than ever, writes Samir Vyas, India Country Manager for Agilent Technologies

About Author: Samir Vyas is the India Country Manager for Agilent Technologies. He leads the organisation, which is committed for the customer success through scientific solutions that fulfill some of the most complex laboratory needs. He is also active in building strategic collaborations & partnerships across industry segments.

The year 2021 was unprecedented. The discovery and large-scale production of vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus brought a ray of hope and strengthened our collective spirit of resilience. However, the second wave of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns affected lives and livelihoods across the nation and led enterprises to shut down or stall operations to combat the spread of the virus.
The scientific community was one of the worst-hit sectors that saw temporary closure of lab facilities, scale-down in throughput and others pivoting to cater to the burgeoning demand in our fight against the virus. Analytical instrument vendor companies left no stone unturned in supporting all the stakeholders in the ecosystem – customers, vendors, medical fraternity, government institutions and the public. This was accomplished through innovations with the goal of optimizing lab performance.
In India, labs witnessed demand pressures as there was a spike in cases of COVID-19 to over 30 million during the peak, necessitating urgent steps to meet the protocols for tracking-testing-tracing-treating cases and patients.
This translated into a huge spurt in lab tests, report volumes and healthcare units, amidst a vast jump in the number of positive cases. The situation reinforced the importance of quality medical instruments for superior testing and accurate results.
Opportunities and challenges alike for lab operations
The pandemic also highlighted certain occupational hazards for scientists and analysts in carrying out their routine work in the lab. During pre-pandemic times, analytical instruments and lab devices were typically placed in close quarters inside the lab with the goal of optimizing bench space. Also, the need to utilize scheduling assist tools was limited. The bottleneck for the industry was the ability to maintain continued productivity levels and simultaneously adhere to COVID-19 protocols of adequate social distancing.
To overcome these problems, some labs resorted to working in shifts with pre-scheduled staff access for the use of lab equipment. In other instances, remote work was rolled out to balance the dual objectives of achieving lab productivity and always ensuring lab personnel safety.
Heralding the age of advanced automation in labs
Another challenge faced, even before the pandemic, was the huge work volumes that the labs in India had to deal with. In such cases, ensuring efficient operations and safeguarding against sudden disruptions can be overwhelming to manage. This is where automation techniques can help establish a competitive edge. Digital tools can intelligently monitor instrument health, prevent downtime, provide early warnings and red flag issues to ensure timely replacements, preventive maintenance, and smooth functioning. Digital technology can effectively oversee and manage operations in a remote manner, with minimal human supervision, and faster response mechanisms, through the deployment of cutting-edge augmented reality tools.
To facilitate social distancing in lab environments, technology with scheduling functionality software can reserve specific resources and spaces, control access to sensitive or validated equipment, and track utilization levels. Decision management is another critical area in labs. Interconnected devices that provide insightful information, based on fact-based data with streamlined workflows can aid in superior decision quality.
Furthermore, creating a digital ecosystem for seamless and efficient laboratory operation is now more crucial than ever, when remote accessibility to the right resources and utilities has been one of the biggest challenges. It is imperative that lab scientists are provided with interactive e-commerce platforms to allow easy access and purchase of spares, consumables, and services online, thereby optimizing the lab performance.
The Indian government’s digital initiative of Government eMarketplace (GeM) is also gaining popularity for public procurement. Such platforms promote contactless, paperless, and cashless online transactions, which are crucial in the time of a pandemic. They are also helping transform public procurement in India with accessibility, usability, transparency, efficiency, and cost savings. A similar approach is also expected in the private sector, wherein we are witnessing a demand for cloud-based integrated e-platforms that can provide seamless integration starting from e-catalog to invoicing.
Augmenting collaboration
Technicians and lab engineers are the lifeforce behind the successful functioning of analytical instruments. A wrong instrumentation reading due to infrequent servicing or incorrect calibration can sometimes snowball into a bigger problem for laboratories who need to deliver accurate and quick results to their clients. Field service engineers relentlessly work to install, maintain, qualify, and repair instruments based on customer needs and the working environment.
Further, there is a need to maintain continuous communication channels for uninterrupted lab support even during a lockdown. Through remote devices, digital tools can facilitate engineers and customers to access timely expertise and virtual support during critical times. Infrastructure readiness has been a major enabler for business continuity since the COVID-19 crisis struck. For instance, webchat facilities that provide quick access to information, virtual technical demo capabilities that help lab users stay informed about technology advancements, and remote service support capabilities, have played a significant role in maximizing the productivity and uptime of labs.
Virtual support offerings have extended beyond instrument troubleshooting to e-training lab personnel, conducted through instructor-led virtual courses so that lab personnel could continue to enhance their skills from anywhere at any time.
Building future-ready labs
The scientific community has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with dexterity and responsibility in a proactive manner by addressing and adapting to the unexpected work volumes and social distancing norms, regardless of scale.
The working lessons of the pandemic will leave an indelible imprint on the future of labs, particularly in terms of digitalization. Adoption of remote technologies to maintain operations, scheduling systems to improve the effective lab use of shared assets, virtual learning, and use of cloud-based instrument monitoring are just the beginning. In the coming months, we would witness increased utilization of augmented reality, virtual reality and intelligent automation tools that would manage and service equipment from remote locations with integrated workflows, further advancing lab operations.
It would be prudent for lab managers and decision-makers to learn valuable lessons from the pandemic and reimagine the effective use of expensive lab space, identify essential instrumentation needs and develop actionable strategies towards creating digital future-proof labs.

*Views expressed by the author are his own. The references in the article are available upon request.