How Manufacturers Are Tackling Key Challenges Within Modern Analytical Labs

by | Apr 24, 2024

Discover the latest challenges facing analytical laboratories and learn the strategies employed by vendors to help.

As we navigate the complexities of emerging industries, it becomes evident that today’s analytical laboratories face an advanced set of challenges. From an evolving graduate pool to rapidly changing regulations, a myriad of changes contribute to shaping the current laboratory environment. When determining how to tackle various challenges, it’s clear that innovation and collaboration are at the heart of progress.

With a firm commitment to understanding issues at their core and leveraging decades of expertise, mainstay manufacturers play a pivotal role in helping analysts adapt to change. Manufacturers are helping to lead the charge toward a future where analytical laboratories operate seamlessly, empowered by cutting-edge technologies and unwavering support.

We spoke with John Luck, Perkin Elmer's Chief Commercial Officer, to discuss the pressing issues confronting analytical laboratories and the proactive measures instrument manufacturers are taking to alleviate them.

In your view, what are some of the major challenges facing analytical laboratories today?

I think there are a couple of really big secular drivers out there that are gaining momentum. One is laboratory staffing. In general, there is not as much analytical chemistry, and the graduation rate is down. Students tend to go more specialized, for example, molecular biology or biochemistry, so there’s been a decrease in enrollment in the pure sciences over the past couple of years and that is creating a shortage in analytical chemistry lab personnel.

In addition, there are some interesting studies about the number of linear feet of bench space the average lab technician oversees, and that number has increased multifold. This means that technicians in the lab today have to know about and be able to run multiple different kinds of instruments. It used to be the case that if you were the gas chromatography person, you sat in front of the gas chromatography station and that was your domain. Now, you may have to oversee multiple types of instruments, and instead of having a gas chromatography specialist, each person performing development work has to run their own analysis. 

The other secular driver is the ever-increasing pace of regulatory change, which speaks for itself in terms of the challenges it creates.

What are manufacturers doing to help laboratory staff overcome these challenges?

If we take the first challenge, the staffing issue, some of the ways that we are supporting our customers is by paying close attention to user needs when designing application software, making our instruments as easy to use as possible, and finding commonality in terms of how to run those instruments from platform to platform. So, if somebody is familiar with how to run our ICP-OES, they step right up to our ICP-MS, which looks pretty similar. Or they even go over to a GC-MS or LC-MS/MS instrument, and there’s some commonality in terms of the mass spec interface portion.

Another area we focus on is training services. First, there’s the type of fundamental training customers receive when purchasing an instrument, for example, how to run the instrument and perform basic maintenance. Then there’s intermediate training that covers areas such as troubleshooting and data analysis, all the way up to advanced multi-day training that looks at method development and advanced features. We also offer flexibility in terms of classroom or on-site training.

One more area that we really work on with our customers is supporting them in their applications. This helps to ensure the quality of lab staffing and keep pace with the regulatory environment. For example, we have field application scientists across the globe who are experts in individual parts of the industries that they sell into. They understand and are often working with key regulatory governing bodies. As well as trying to be proactive, they are helping set the standards in many cases.

Are there different approaches to help tackle challenges in emerging industries?

There are certainly some industry-specific approaches. Food safety testing, biological testing, microplastics, PFAS, semiconductors, and battery recycling are all examples of dynamic fields that offer opportunities to address challenges that arise. Our underlying approach to how we run our business is based on first principles, which essentially means that we try to understand issues at a really granular level of detail.

Batteries is one area where there are exciting growth opportunities but complex challenges. There’s not just battery manufacturing to consider—you've got to think about upstream mining of the raw materials as well as the downstream recycling of the batteries. Meanwhile, PFAS is a little ahead in terms of the maturity curve of regulatory requirements. We are seeing that virtually every environmental lab we meet is doing some sort of PFAS testing because now it's a regulatory requirement.

Microplastics is another emerging trend, but the regulatory landscape is not quite there yet. In the absence of those drivers, many factors remain unclear. These include the types of samples, testing levels, and who will be required to perform analyses. That said, we are actively developing methods to analyze and generate data on microplastics in environmental and biological samples.

How are environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals impacting how problems are approached?

ESG is now what I would call table stakes. For any large bid or customer partnership, you have to be able to not only put out good science but also show that you are doing so in an environmentally responsible, sustainable way. For example, for one of our recent instrument launches, one of the areas of focus was the cooling that takes place with the unit. We use an environmental cooling agent as well as a highly energy-efficient cooling system that uses one-tenth of the energy of its predecessor.

What do you see as some of the major trends for instrument innovation?

One of the most obvious topics is AI and looking at how we can leverage it. It is very early days, but eventually, AI will come into play in a significant way. Another one is automation, and liquid handling is a big component of that. Similar to and associated with it is data analysis. All these things are going to be important to labs in the future in terms of the technologies vendors use to support their instruments. They will play key roles in areas such as uptime, productivity, and efficiency. Ultimately, we want to ensure that the customer is investing in the right way with the right footprint with the right equipment, so that they are able to perform the necessary tasks now and in the future.

It is worth noting that for many clients, the lab is not their business. The lab is something they have to operate from a compliance standpoint in order to pass QA and QC for their final product. For example, food customers are ultimately producing food, and biopharma customers want to produce a molecule that targets a disease state. Really, what I think the lab of the future will involve is an outcomes-based relationship with vendors, where the vendor will maintain partial or full ownership of the instrument so that what the customer is really buying is output.

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