You do not need to have been around for a long time to remember the days of laboratories still stocked with well-worn wooden boxes, Victorian style instruments and other anachronistic paraphernalia.
Times are changing, the laboratories of today are far more streamlined and, judging from a slew of recent innovations, the laboratory of tomorrow will be something else entirely.
Consumer Technology and Scientific Technology Will Unite
Interestingly, the big technological and scientific developments that will drive this development, fall into two rough categories. First of all, advances in consumer technologies like better touch screen interfaces, wearable technology and 3D printing will undoubtedly impact on how the laboratory of the future looks. Then there is the entirely separate arena of material developments, greater understanding of the chemical make up of products, and new raw materials to be explored. Although these two areas do not overlap at present, it is likely that some of the most exciting new laboratory kits will emerge from their convergence.
A great example of this is in how we view visual information. No more than a decade ago, most of us had to rely on straightforward, one-way screens to view information. Times have changed, with touch screen technology having almost comprehensively overhauled the mobile telecommunications industry, made inroads into the personal computing and television industries as well as playing an increasing role in laboratory and medical settings. There are big advantages to touch screen in terms of hygiene, usability and functionality, so it is likely that tomorrow’s laboratories will use much more touch screen technology.
The interface revolution need not stop there, though. A recent German report into the future of dental labs suggested that the use of holography or tomography, popularised in science fiction – but so far quite different in reality, could be expanded to provide innovative new ways of presenting images to patients and practitioners. The opportunities for other laboratory environments are potentially huge.
Google Glass Protective Goggles?
As some things get larger, others get smaller. Protective goggles might yet get ‘Googled’, with technologies already in the pipeline from the search engine giant, for information displayed in glasses and even contact lenses. The safety and efficiency related applications of a direct information feed to a laboratory technician’s goggles could redefine the efficiency of laboratories almost overnight.
D Printing is a Laboratory Game-Changer
Of all the new technologies to have made headlines in the last few years, it is perhaps D printing that presents the most comprehensive possibilities for revolutionising lab practice. It is not a technology uniquely applicable to laboratories, of course, and there have already been experiments ranging from a full-sized house being built in the Netherlands to a 3D printed gun being designed in Texas. The possibilities for change in the lab are no less fundamental. The use of 3D printers to produce prosthetics, valves and even lab equipment are almost endless… Developments in 3D printed replacement organ are already happening.
Needless to say, some things will stay much as they always were. Companies like Laboratory Precision Limited already produce lab equipment like vials, caps and seals which do not require any improvement and could not be realistically produced in a more cost-effective way through the use of in-house printers. Instead, it is the more difficult to source items which a laboratory printing facility could produce, drastically cutting waiting times, costs and the whole way the laboratory supply chain works.
Of course, existing technology may develop and improve but you can bet that oil free air compressors will remain virtually unchanged with regards to performance and appearance… Though they may be integrated with technology of the future such as displays and interfaces that will link every element of the laboratory, dental surgery or scientific research centre they are used in.
Graphene: A Material we’ll all be Using
The flip side of the technological coin is the development of new materials, structures and techniques at chemical level. The British government, for example, is currently funding a rapid exploration of a newly available material, graphene, which laboratories at the University of Manchester have succeeded in producing, and which offers enormous possibilities for lab equipment. There are also a host of conceivable medical uses for the ultra-thin ‘miracle material’, as well as applications in areas like dentistry. Suddenly the instruments used in Star Trek and science fiction seem to be much closer to reality…
Sooner that imagined.
The Future of Science is Bright
The picture emerging, if these nascent technological advances are put together, is an encouraging one. A far simpler, cleaner interface combined with superior safety arrangements and an overhaul of the supply chain arrangements of many laboratories, could see labs becoming more efficient, more productive and more cost-effective. 3D printing combined with high quality new materials could, in the future, lead to a plethora of new treatment options and the ability of medical facilities to provide a far higher level of treatment.
The laboratory of the future, for all these advances, will not look entirely unfamiliar. Corny jokes pinned to the noticeboard will remain, as will staple technologies like chromatography equipment, which does exactly what it needs to do and could not be conceivably replaced, Laboratory Precision Limited also produce these, so the future looks stable for this manufacturer at least.
The missing link is the laboratory technician. Real advances only happen when people become involved, and whatever the laboratory of the future might look like, all possible advances depend on good scientists. In that sense, it is still reassuringly fair to say that the biggest variable amidst these exciting technological leaps remains the individuals at the centre of it all.