December 20, 2022
The field of environmental testing has evolved significantly in the last decade and alongside it, the pressure to adapt to the shift has landed squarely on laboratories that test environmental samples. Laboratories need to perform a diverse range of analytical tests on environmental samples such as air, water, soil, and wastes (liquids, solids, or sludges). At the same time, laboratories have not been spared the economic upheavals that have cut across industries following the pandemic-initiated global recession. This has come with market consolidation and declining profitability. However, things are not as bad as they may seem. The market size for environmental testing is expected to surpass $17 billion by 2030, from $8 billion in 2023. What laboratories need is a lifeline to tide them over the recession period and accelerate productivity. In this case, leveraging technology seems to be it.
Here are three technological trends that are expected to gain momentum in 2023 and thereafter.
While most environmental laboratories have already adopted some form of automation, we expect to witness an even greater uptake in 2023 and beyond.
Environmental laboratories face a myriad of challenges including the need to cut back on operational costs as well as a shortage of skilled and competent staff. At the same time, it is expected that the demand for environmental testing will grow exponentially in terms of volume and diversity of tests. Furthermore, environmental testing laboratories need to follow several regulatory guidelines such as NELAC (TNI), ISO 17025, RCRA, CERCLA, GLP/GALP, UCMR, CFR Title 40, CWA, NPDES, RCRA, UIC, besides state and local regulations. Managing huge volumes of test requests and data generated from them while meeting regulatory compliance can be overwhelming. This has created the need for informatics solutions.
Increasingly, more and more environmental testing laboratories are opting to automate entire workflows to maintain data integrity and eliminate manual errors. This includes processes associated with samples, tests, and data management as well as management of lab instruments, software, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and personnel.
Automation presents several benefits, including data accuracy, the efficiency of processes as well as increased output. It also reduces the administrative workload and allows laboratory staff to focus on more specialized tasks. While the initial cost of switching from manual processes to automated systems can be high, this is likely to yield higher returns in terms of profits in the long run. Fortunately, automation technology for laboratories is now widely available, and consequently, automation has become relatively affordable for even small laboratories with meager budgets.
Cloud computing supports automation by providing remote and secure access to several IT resources that are hosted in the cloud. A survey conducted by Environmental Business International (EBI) showed that over 50% of environmental companies are planning to invest in cloud computing (IoT) in the 2020s.
Cloud computing allows laboratories to access computing services such as servers, databases, and software over the Internet. It enables real-time collaboration and cost-saving through economies of scale. Laboratories can easily store and access data from any location and at any time. Modern in-the-cloud systems, such as a cloud-based Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS), use world-class technology to beef up security and provide automated timely security updates. In multi-laboratory companies, a LIMS can centrally store data of all laboratories and manage diverse workflows of all laboratories, thereby eliminating data silos.
AI empowers computers with the ability to “think” and execute actions without human input. Environmental testing laboratories can leverage AI and ML to improve experimental design, quickly analyze test results of multiple tests, and make data-driven decisions that may take days if done manually. Just like automation, AI reduces human error in laboratory processes and boosts productivity. The Environmental Business International (EBI) survey showed that over 50% of environmental laboratories are planning to invest in AI.
Apart from AI, the integration of LIMS with Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) solutions helps environmental testing laboratories to see SOPs and record observations. All these technologies are intended to increase efficiency in laboratories and boost output in tandem with the demands of 21st-century environmental testing.
From a value of $1.85 billion in 2021, the LIMS industry is expected to reach a value of $3.5 billion by 2030, growing at a CAGR of 7%. In a survey that was conducted by EBI, 95% of environmental companies indicated that they have the intention to invest in a LIMS. Most of these companies strongly believe that information technology is necessary for digitally transforming lab operations and for the evolution of the industry to the next phase. An environmental LIMS software automates laboratory workflows by integration with all instruments and software and ties in with other technological trends such as AI and ML.
A LIMS also manages and streamlines the entire sample life cycle, from sample accessioning to reporting test results to customers and regulatory agencies. Furthermore, a LIMS enables laboratories to meet stringent regulatory guidelines, flag out-of-specification results, analyze trends across a set of samples, track deviations from SOPs, and centrally manage multi-laboratory data with ease.
Environmental testing is a profitable and competitive niche, but with a fair share of challenges at the same time. Forward-thinking laboratories can use the latest technology trends to pivot their operations so they can meet the stringent demands of environmental testing. Tech trends to be on the lookout for in the coming years include the automation of most laboratory processes, wide-scale adoption of cloud computing, and the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. At the same time, more laboratories are expected to implement a cloud-based environmental LIMS software to digitally transform and future-proof their operations.