Research laboratories are dedicated to taking pioneering steps forward into new methods and technologies, but are they ready to embrace a new way of working?

Most people follow newspapers, blog sites and various other media online, but how often does this translate across into the working environment? To keep up with the dynamic technology of today, laboratories now need to work towards creating a mobile workforce, where researchers are free to interact with databases and systems wherever they are, be it in the laboratory, the freezer room or on the move.

The mobile workforce
It is not surprising that today’s mobile workforce wants to be able to access workplace technologies from just about anywhere. What is surprising though is that in our experience a large majority comment that their job satisfaction and productivity is now closely related to this level of mobile access. There are clear benefits in having employees who are not chained to their desks. Therefore, there is potential for organisations to make sizeable gains in many areas when confronting the challenges involved in helping their employees achieve mobile working.

During the second phase of an eight-month study on the evolving workforce, commissioned by Dell in the US and its partner Intel, it was concluded that nearly three-quarters of US employees questioned claimed that flexible schedules, enabled through the use of mobile technology, meant that they could make greater contributions to their organisations. In addition, 76% felt that they were measured more by the quality of the work they produced, rather than by the time spent in the office, all of which translates into markedly higher morale in the workplace and so increased productivity.

This approach, incorporating flexible working and mobile technology, is one that many research laboratories may be looking at mirroring. Being able to input experimental results directly into a computerised system, without leaving the bench, saves time and effort for the researcher and streamlines their working processes. However, the fact remains that working within a lab differs dramatically from working in an office. Laboratory personnel require different things from their software than do office workers, creating challenges for the providers of mobile software in order to adapt their products to this specific market.

Such personnel will always need to spend time in the lab. The environmental conditions and processes involved in carrying out research experiments to high standards need to be tightly controlled and monitored, which can only be achieved efficiently within a laboratory setting.

In many cases, however, this hands-on work only accounts for a small percentage of a researcher’s daily routine. The largest share of time is spent in defining procedures and the preparation, organisation, analysis, write up and submission of data, which traditionally takes place at a desk. This is where there is a significant opportunity for laboratory work to become truly mobile – providing that the correct devices, systems and software are available to allow its secure use.

Advancing technologies
When we look at the progress of modern technology, from mobile phones to smartphones and through to mobile tablets, there has never been more opportunity for innovation in mobile software and devices. The mobile and tablet landscape is more diverse than ever before, with strong competition from numerous big players, ranging from Apple to Google, and this market continues to advance, with technology companies racing to bring the next development to the market. Already the camera systems in most devices are capable of scanning barcodes and interfacing with database systems, running websites and connecting to multiple Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks.

As mobile capabilities have moved beyond email and browsing the internet, they have been increasingly involved in new work applications, such as those found in a research lab. When the iPad was initially released by Apple, there was much discussion on its potential as a replacement to the traditional lab notebook. By enabling quicker processes, applications such as calculators, converters and databases are increasingly being found in everyday use.

With this range of devices available, the application of mobile technologies in labs should not only be seen as a device or technology issue, but also as a implementation issue. In order to make the most of mobile working, organisations need to develop the capacity to utilise these devices to face the mobile challenge.

The responsibility of software developers
So how do software and support providers facilitate this fresh demand for mobility? There is a long-running debate over the advantages of a webbased app over a mobile app, and vice versa. The argument is strong on both sides, and there are merits to having a fully independent device-specific application available, as well as to being able to utilise a web browser common to all devices. The onus is on the software developer and the customer themselves to understand which would best suit their specific applications.

With this ever changing mobile and tablet landscape, the priority of developers should not only be to deliver apps, but to understand the impact on the end user. Software organisations will not gain an advantage by simply providing researchers with a fancy new mobile app – each decision maker needs to be able to better understand the requirements of their users and enable them to extend the reach of websites, online services and systems outside desktop browser windows.

The reality is that software developers need to provide laboratory users with more than just a mobile app or access to a mobile website, or even a hybrid: in practice all three are needed to provide maximum effectiveness to the whole variety of customers within a lab. Each of these technologies provides a solution for different contexts and user types.

For example, a mobile site will work best for occasional or one-off users who do not wish to install anything, while a mobile app is better suited to intensive users willing to install specific software for a precise purpose. A hybrid app may be ideal for regular users who want a first level of service on various occasions.

Adoption by the scientific community
Concerns over implementation
Once the appropriate technology and software has been implemented, the challenge then turns to scientists’ acceptance and its incorporation into their working practices. As is to be expected with any major change, some aspects are more easily accepted than others. Although some laboratories have reported noticeably improved accuracy and efficiency in their day-to-day work, others face issues with getting approval for use, or have concerns over security and the potential for distraction.

The idea of devices such as smartphones and tablets as ‘entertainment’ tools is one that may deter some managers from bringing them into a laboratory setting. However, if used correctly, there is a huge scope for such software to contribute to research work. The use of video, sound and interactive screens makes a substantial difference to the way data can be presented, creating a more dynamic, and ultimately more accessible, experience for laboratory clients and visitors who may not have a scientific background.

Other concerns for researchers include worries about security and validation. There have been some questions as to how mobile software can guarantee the highest levels of security and tracking needed in many laboratory environments. As in many applications, tighter laboratory and research regulations are being imposed by both internal and external agencies. It has never been so important for laboratory scientists to be able to track and validate their systems. This is especially vital in facilities which make use of human material, such as during IVF, stem cells and regenerative tissue processes.

Electronic records need to be compliant with FDA CFR 21 Part 11 guidelines, which define the criteria by which electronic records and signatures are considered to be trustworthy and equivalent to paper records. Practically, this requires FDA-regulated industries, such as those working within the biotech and pharmacological arenas, to implement controls across their electronic systems. These include audits, system validations, audit trails, electronic signatures, and documentation for the software and systems involved in processing data. In such cases, source codes and software needs to be developed in accordance with today’s regulations, allowing everything to be proved and verified, and this is the responsibility of the software developer.

Benefits to laboratories – mobile working and streamlined processes
Despite the concerns of some in the scientific community, mobile technology is becoming increasingly commonplace within the laboratory environment. This can be attributed to the dramatic benefits it provides to researchers.

One of the most obvious advantages comes from being able to review and contribute to research when away from the desk, or even when away from the building or travelling. Having the ability to instantly access experimental information is having a huge impact on the working lives of many scientists. Being able to set up an experiment to run and then walk away to work in another area can mean real time savings, freeing up man hours which would otherwise be spent monitoring a procedure, streamlining the way in which a laboratory works.

Security is also improved, as continuous observation is ensured. Automatic monitoring can take place even when an experiment needs to run overnight or over several hours, for instance. If there is an incident or problem at any point, the technology exists to have alerts sent directly to mobile devices or personal computers. Lab personnel can then return and take action promptly to minimise damage and potential loss of data or samples.

As well as the increased security and mobility, many laboratories which have implemented mobile devices have seen marked improvements in the ability to input data at the bench. In a traditional lab, a great deal of time can be spent on paperwork, recording the progress of experiments. This conventional approach is not only time-consuming, but leaves a huge amount of scope for human error. With the risk of papers being lost or damaged, there is always the potential for losing traceability and compromising the research as a whole if copies are not readily available.

The ability of smartphones and tablets to read barcodes means that the use of instruments, consumables and reagents can all be closely monitored. As the researcher has the ability to scan each piece of equipment used in a specific procedure at the bench, and then to have this information logged on their system, all processes can be traced back and the corresponding paperwork completed automatically. Having this kind of data system in place also makes it easy for others in the laboratory to access records and revisit previous work, reducing the potential for errors and improving traceability.

Looking forward
Despite some concerns about the use of mobile technology in laboratories, it is an area which looks set to go from strength to strength in the next few years. In a recent survey, 38% of laboratory users said they used mobile devices in their labs, while 23% said they had plans to introduce them in the future. In the time since these questions were asked, it is safe to assume these numbers have increased alongside more recent technological developments.

In the meantime, LIMS and software developers should focus on producing innovative solutions aimed at allowing users to achieve and maintain a complete, auditable and easy to use system. Experience has taught us that focusing on customer support and being able to understand the needs of laboratory users is key, and this kind of dedication goes a long way to ensuring that pressing market needs are met. With good technology and support, the transition from desktop to mobile working will be made as effortless as possible.

In a trend that is set to continue, mobile technologies and software solutions are developing rapidly. In comparison with other industry areas, laboratories are still somewhat behind when it comes to implementing mobile technology solutions on a regular basis. However, as the market evolves towards even quicker, easier and more secure mobile technology, they are set to become a stable part of the laboratory process.

Sarah Westall joined Pro-curo Software Ltd as Sales and Marketing Director in 2011, having previously worked as an Account Manager for the Brady Corporation. She has gained experience working with software systems in various laboratories, including universities, hospitals and pharma.