The world has entered the era of the Internet of Things (IoT), where many devices (things) can be connected to the Internet/Intranet for data exchange and application. Many industries have shown interest in the new technology and are finding out what values it can create. The manufacturing industry has taken the lead in this new trend, where the applications of IoT are expected to usher in a “paradigm shift” in so-called “Industry 4.0” production. Significant changes are also taking place in molecular biology laboratory equipment. Several of the main players in the field have started to introduce remote monitoring and other IoT-based features into their products to increase convenience and efficiency as well as precision and accuracy.
Laboratory equipment turning a new page with new technology
The PCR thermal cycler is an instrument now widely deployed in biochemical and medical laboratories for the amplification of DNA segments or sequences for such purposes as medical/biological studies and research, the detection of pathogens, paternity testing and even criminal investigation. A mixture of DNA primer, thermo-stable enzyme and nucleotides is subjected to a cycle of heating and cooling to make many copies of a specific region of DNA from an initial small sample of biological material. The quality of the results depends largely on precise control of the temperature and time of each reaction cycle. The whole process for each PCR procedure usually takes 30-40 minutes but can run for up to 2 hours.
The entire process is automatic and controlled by the instrument itself. Most often the technician just sits by the machine waiting for the results, intervening only in the event an error message should be displayed. What if the technician could be elsewhere and view the whole process remotely, and receive error alerts and status notifications automatically on a Smartphone or other mobile device? Nowadays IoT-based remote technology is providing such solutions.
Blue-Ray Biotech is one of several molecular biology laboratory equipment manufacturers that has already introduced IoT technology. The PCR TurboCycler of Blue-Ray Biotech has a built-in WiFi module that allows the PCR process to be monitored remotely. The information that appears on the machines own screen, such as temperature and time, can now also be seen on the screen of a Smartphone in real time. A mobile application called TurboAPP allows users to install and configure the dashboard. The WiFi module built into the machine serves the same function as a wireless router and a connection can be established directly with a Smartphone. This makes monitoring possible in a laboratory where there is no other WiFi AP or Router deployment.
TurboApp WiFi connections make it possible for the operators of PCR machines to do other things rather than sit around waiting for the cycle to complete. Monitoring of the progress of the PCR cycle and operating status of the machine can be done on a Smartphone or other device from elsewhere in the laboratory. Any alerts or alarms will be transmitted to the Smartphone and the operator will be informed when the process has been completed.
The Wifi module built into the TurboCycler has a direct range of up to 10 meters. However, if the laboratory building has wireless access points or routers, the range of data transmission can be much greater and operators are often able to move freely within a much larger area and still receive the signal from their PCR machines.
In addition to monitoring the process of a specific PCR machine, the app also allows users to check the availability of PCR machines in the laboratory, so that they can see if it is possible for them to slot in a booking.
In addition to remote monitoring of the PCR thermal cyclers, Blue-Ray Biotech is also working on the inclusion of remote monitoring to their upcoming new range of centrifuges.
This is just the beginning. More laboratory equipment that uses IoT-based technologies can be expected. Many fantastic features can be included with IoT. It can make equipment “smarter”, more efficient and more convenient.
For example, a system can be designed that gathers operating data from machines and uploads it to a database in the cloud in real time. This large accumulated data pool can then be used to train machine-learning models for the implementation of preventive maintenance of the monitored equipment. Remote diagnosis and trouble-shooting routines can also be included to prevent unexpected shutdowns and avoid damage and loss.
It might sound fanciful, but it is not fiction. Related technologies are already in place in areas like factory automation and aftermarket maintenance services such as those for elevators and air conditioners. However, we have to consider many factors when deciding on the features to be adopted, including the practical needs of users and the appropriate cost structure of products. The main principle for consideration is the maximization of the overall benefit our products can deliver to users at a reasonable and effective price.