Sustainable lab practice allied to uncompromising quality and safety standards are vital for the operation of cutting edge life science discovery and development. Kas Mohammed and Mark Yeeles provide practical pointers.
ife science real estate is thriving. The UK leads Europe in discovery research and life science start-up funding, with £2.8 billion raised by UK biotechs alone in 2020 , and real estate must keep up with the pace.
Laboratories pose a whole host of building and maintenance challenges to ensure that vital work can be carried out efficiently. The pandemic has further increased the pressure on the sector, and highlighted areas that require rapid innovation. With more than 250,000 people employed in life sciences in the UK , how can we create truly flexible, healthy and sustainable spaces for life science occupiers?
Meet shifting lab demands
Wet and dry labs must meet strict conditions to deliver meaningful results. Regulation of internal conditions is key to protect the integrity of testing environments, like HVAC, airflow, temperature, and humidity controls, but wet and dry labs can pose different challenges for developers.
For wet labs, increased plumbing and specialised waste facilities must be installed, with refrigeration and temperature controls essential so that samples are not compromised. For dry labs however, electrical and mechanical systems are the focus, with server maintenance and computational capabilities requiring attention.
Lab managers carry a unique burden. Balancing energy requirements to adhere to strict regulations, whilst keeping an eye on the bottom line and energy efficiency, can be a challenge and launching an energy management programme is vital. Start by auditing energy use, using utility usage data to build an energy action plan. Fix the basics, like switching to low-energy lighting and low-loss transformers and communicate efficiency goals with staff. Next, bring in automation to keep HVAC and airflow within tolerances and monitor results to identify continuous improvements and ensure staff comfort.
Create flexible spaces
From access control and space management, to understanding employee needs and creating a happier, more productive and connected workforce, building developers and operators must understand the role of technology in the future of work. Working from home is no longer limited to office roles, with IoT enabling remote access, creating truly flexible spaces and work lives.
In the lab environment, flexibility is key, whether that be the ability to easily swap the usage of a space from wet to dry, or move stations around as and when required, to adapt to new requirements for experimental work. The building design must allow for this, for instance having multiple overhead utilities points to facilitate different lab layouts and adequate power supply. Monitoring space usage also enables lab managers to shift functions to meet evolving needs and ensures that staff always have the right space and tools they need for the job.
The rise of AI, robotics and ‘cobotics’
Although the UK and Ireland is the ninth largest manufacturing zone in the world, adoption of industrial automation systems has been slow; it sits 24th globally for automation and robotics.
Implementing smart technology and automation is a vital step. Thanks to universal automation, organisations can achieve rapid advancements, while keeping staff safe, empowered and engaged. Technology reduces repetitive tasks and allows workers to add value with human skill. Empowered employees make fast, informed decisions, boosting productivity and operational efficiency, through solutions like secure remote access.
Finding the perfect balance of human and machine, ‘cobotics’ is a growing trend in the sector, using compact, collaborative robots that work alongside humans. Individuals retain the imagination, reasoning, judgement and improvisation, and ‘cobots’ support staff on the laboratory floor. As automation developers introduce better sensing capability and more responsive safety systems, the application of robotic equipment in this space will only increase. This will pave the way for improved interaction, making complex processes faster, easier and safer.
Cultivate connectivity and well-being
The pandemic put new pressure on businesses to create enhanced, efficient and responsive workplaces that meet employees’ evolving needs. Data from IoT devices and sensors feeds into occupancy, well-being and people analysis, allowing managers to implement optimal conditions for staff comfort, as well as identifying opportunities to re-allocate usage and cut costs.
Lab managers can respond proactively to occupant and business needs, and going one step further, controls can be individualised, creating more productive environments that can be easily adapted to meet requirements.
The benefits of this connectivity do not stop at wellbeing. For instance, daylight harvesting light sensors can dim internal light in relation to ambient light, saving you energy on brighter days, and adjusting temperature setpoints can yield great reductions in energy consumption, with just a 1?C change producing energy savings of up to 60% , as well as reduced carbon emissions.
The future of life sciences real estate is ripe for innovation. By implementing these technologies, we can meet energy efficiency and sustainability goals whilst enhancing facilities for the workforce. It is important to find the right balance, pushing forward and adopting innovative technologies, without the need to compromise on staff wellbeing.
- McKinsey: The UK biotech sector: The path to global leadership (2021)
- Statista: Number of employees in the life science industry sectors in the United Kingdom in 2020, by sector (2022)
- Science Direct: Building and Environment, vol 155 (2019)
Kas Mohammed is VP Digital Energy at Schneider Electric
Mark Yeeles is VP Industrial at Schneider Electric