Pharma 5.0

Greener and smarter: positive post-pandemic effects in the laboratory sector

Published: 21-Mar-2024

The widespread effects of the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen in almost all businesses globally, but not always negatively. According to a survey conducted by Starlab, improvements can be seen in the laboratory sector

Many laboratories predict that 2024 will bring not only growth and an increasing demand for materials, but also continuing staff shortages and rising prices for consumables. Despite these challenges, today’s labs are optimistic about the future.

The latest survey involving more than 350 scientists and researchers from Germany, the UK, Italy France and Austria from Starlab International determined that sustainability is becoming increasingly important, as well as the presence of AI in the lab.

Many laboratories have not only successfully recovered from the pandemic, but have emerged stronger than before.

“Sustainability and AI have the potential to become game changers – for people and for the environment. It sounds somewhat contradictory, but in a laboratory context, machine intelligence will place people at centre stage. The potential impact on society and health is huge. The survey shows that the scientific community has been aware of this for a long time. The important thing now is to create the political framework so that Europe isn’t left behind”, says Klaus Ambos, President and CEO of Starlab International.

67% of scientists reported sufficient supplies of liquid handling products and no delivery delays

The life science industry is once again well prepared for taking the next step into the future, at least in terms of materials. For the first time, 67% of the scientists surveyed reported sufficient supplies of liquid handling products and no delivery delays – the best results since 2020.

By way of comparison, the figures for 2022 were only 43%, and 23% for 2021. The figures also indicate that laboratories are stockpiling fewer materials. Only 3% still plan on hoarding stocks for peak periods in 2024 (compared to 7%t in 2023, 13% in 2022, and 12% in 2021).


Demand for materials rises; security of supply is restored

“Laboratories have come to realise that manufacturers have done their homework and are once again able to deliver reliably; trust in security of supply has been restored. Laboratories are ordering what they need instead of what they think they might need”, says Klaus Ambos.

His company and key suppliers had also responded to supply bottlenecks by relocating production from abroad to Germany.

According to the survey results, the new security of supply is the result of newly created capacities rather than a decline in demand. Only one in ten facilities (11%) reported a decrease in their material consumption in 2023.

Some 61% require the same amount of material as in the previous year, while 28% require even more. For 2024, 68% expect demand to remain the same and 27% anticipate an increase in demand for materials, while only 5% will require less material.


New challenges: prices and personnel

In view of this new baseline, laboratories are anticipating different challenges in 2024 compared to previous years.

Worries about rising prices for consumables are now the biggest challenge in the United Kingdom for 48% of respondents, followed by concerns about staff shortages (23%). “While freight rates have levelled off again, we are still faced with high follow-up costs”, says Ambos with regard to electricity costs and inflation-related factors.

9 out of 10 labs believe that sustainability is becoming increasingly important for laboratories

Sustainable and economical purchasing behaviour

Despite – or perhaps because of – the challenges posed by price dynamics and staff shortages, laboratories are embracing the two trends of sustainability and AI.

According to the Starlab survey, 9 out of 10 labs believe that sustainability is becoming increasingly important for laboratories. As a result, 95% are already reducing waste wherever possible, 92% are actively reducing their energy consumption, and 75% are increasing order size to reduce transport emissions and packaging waste.

More than one in three laboratories (72%) also regularly carry out training on environmental issues or order sustainably produced or reusable products.

Klaus explains: “We are seeing a paradigm shift in the laboratory sector within a single decade. For years, single-use products have been the main choice, and many believed that material accuracy considerations would prevent the widespread use of recycled materials. This has changed. Lab operations are becoming increasingly sustainable.” 

Klaus Ambos, President and CEO of Starlab International

Klaus Ambos, President and CEO of Starlab International

One in ten laboratories already use AI 

In 2024, sustainability in laboratory operations has progressed from being only a question of mindset and feasibility to a competitive factor.

“The more organisations and companies work towards climate neutrality, the more the companies supplying those laboratories have to be prepared to improve their ecological footprint”, says Ambos.

According to the President and CEO of Starlab, artificial intelligence is also playing a key role alongside ecology, and laboratories are recognising this.

63% of the 306 respondents believe that the relevance of AI in laboratories is growing. The industry is receptive: 67% see AI as an opportunity and only 33% as a risk.

The figures indicate that researchers are taking a forward-thinking approach to tackling the shortage of skilled labour by using digital technology.

Machine learning has come to play an integral role in today’s laboratories. According to 12% of the respondents, (8% of UK respondents) machine intelligence has already significantly changed day-to-day laboratory operations, while 21% believe that AI is well on the way to seeing widespread use.

45% expect AI to significantly change the face of laboratory work in the next five years.

Unlike in many other industries, the use of AI in laboratories can make a real contribution to people’s lives. Admittedly, 81% of respondents hope to achieve greater efficiency and 63% anticipate cost savings, but the real impetus comes from the fact that AI is changing the nature of work itself.

“It’s not just about providing digital advantages, convenience, or making work easier through AI. Life scientists are seeking to improve our lives. AI is opening up new dimensions by increasing the pace of research and the ability to detect diseases and cure them. Self-learning applications provide support for both simple and complex processes,” says Ambos.

This generates entirely new synergies and opens up valuable opportunities for research. 57% of respondents hope that AI will free up more time for valuable teamwork and 52% are looking for more support in tackling complex research questions.

“Artificial intelligence places people at centre stage. AI is a fertile ground for creating a sense of purpose, positivity, and passion in laboratories.”



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AI: Data protection a huge concern, job losses a minor one

Whilst AI is a useful tool for many researchers, many are aware of its limitations. Respondents’ biggest concerns centred on the lack of legal regulations (69%), followed by concerns about data protection and insufficient transparency (both 68%).

A majority of respondents were also worried about ethical concerns, potential loss of creativity and limited verifiability.

Only a minority were afraid that lab jobs would soon be taken over by AI applications, with 9% expressing serious concerns and 20% reporting some anxiety.

“AI is clearly knocking loudly on laboratory doors. It offers opportunities that are not only recognised but also utilised.” Concludes Klaus.

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