Back to the Future: A Retrospective Look Forward At Lab Planning*

Back to the future: a retrospective look forward at lab planning*

Back to the Future: A Retrospective Look Forward At Lab Planning*

This is a picture of Thomas Edison’s lab in Fort Myers, Florida. Built in 1928, the lab contained a chemical processing area, machine shop, grinding room, office area and dark room and was used by Edison, along with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, to find an alternative source for rubber to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign sources. A few short years and 17,000 plant samples later, an alternative was discovered in the Goldenrod plant.

When designing laboratories today, CRB draws upon the successes of the past. Edison is known for creating the first industrial research lab that applied the principles of mass production and large-scale teamwork. So how is Edison’s lab similar to those we design today? Let me explain:

  • COLLABORATION: The open lab environment supported the interdisciplinary team. Meetings in support of innovation happened over the bench and not in a dedicated conference room. This helped to spark ideas and ultimately lead to the success of the lab. Today we intentionally design our labs to encourage interaction by allocating spaces for informal meetings.
  • INTERDISCIPLINARY: Edison hired a unique staff: a chemist, linguist, machine shop manager, plant collector and glass blower. Today we see similarities in organizations like MCubed at the University of Michigan. Multidisciplinary teams are encouraged to go beyond the scientific community and include other disciplines, such as artists or composers.
  • LEAN LAB: Edison’s lab had limited storage and the focus was on mass production to support the innovation process. Similar to the concept of Lean created by Toyota in the 80’s, the Edison lab used these methods of continuous improvement before these terms where coined. Today’s designs look to implement these strategies to eliminate inefficiencies.
  • OPEN LAB: The open lab module was used by Edison. Rows of benches can be seen in the picture. Not unlike today’s labs, shelving is removed from the open benches to allow for views and collaboration. Today this helps with communication and safety.
  • GREEN CHEMISTRY: Edison was ahead of his time in recycling the solvents acetone and benzene. Today’s labs are putting more of a focus on sustainable design and practices.

We must look at the successes of the past and build upon them for the future. This starts with an understanding of the vision for each project. Academia typically has different goals than corporate, for example, but in the future we may see these lines begin to blur. In fact, we already see this in translational medicine, with new funding sources necessitating many different types of partnerships.

Culture is also a key factor driving lab design. Certain planning modules may be ineffective for varying cultures, while traditional modules may help support repetitive tasks, but may also hinder dynamic cultures. New modules that break traditional roles can help to invigorate these cultures and drive results.

The lab planning process is a very important step that shouldn’t be overlooked. Usually driven by equipment, room data sheets and other modeling tools, it is very important to build consensus throughout this process and find opportunities for innovation in the design. This process is very similar to the research process and can ultimately define the future success of the lab.

Edison’s invention of the light bulb is likely his most well known, but eventually the light bulb was improved upon with inventions such as LED lighting. It is certainly our challenge today to build upon the ideas of the past, while taking advantage of current opportunities and technological capabilities to continue improving the future of laboratory design – just like Edison did.

*As featured in the September 2014 edition of Lab Design News