Academic labs may often have a person with rudimentary programming skills that can get experiments running. Alternatively, they may string together several separate programs from manufacturers to perform experiments. However, both approaches can have significant drawbacks. Also, the hardware involved will tend to be based on laboratory instrumentation that may be more complex and expensive than needed or cumbersome to use. A capable systems integration firm can help with many of these aspects.
First is the issue of code that is tailored to the lab’s need, yet that can be maintained across the years and adapted to new experiments. Well designed software separates out aspects of hardware control, user interfaces, and experimental protocols, making adaptation to new hardware or adding new capabilities more bug-free and straightforward. A well-designed user interface will also be intuitive and reduce user errors or the time to train new personnel. Too often, an academic lab may have working code, but must start from scratch when the grad student or postdoc who wrote it leaves. Alternatively, if off-the-shelf programs are used, it can often be cumbersome and error-prone. Reducing inefficiencies and improving repeatability of data can prove valuable when reducing time to publications.
Second, in addition to the software, refinement of hardware design and selection can reduce costs, improve data quality, and allow for multiple experimental rigs to be built for a similar investment. Often, hardware with far more channels or far higher bandwidth than needed may be used for experimental setups. Such expensive equipment can be limiting if they must be shared amongst researchers on separate experiments.
Third, the broad experience present in an experienced systems integration firm could help bring in new ideas or approaches that may prove impactful for future research. The right firm will often draw personnel from a wide variety of backgrounds, such as those with significant postdoctoral or startup experience and decades of experience in medical device development or testing. The value of this experience cannot be overstated.
The time it may take for a non-professional to develop such systems and the inefficiencies of basing experiments on them can be high when salaries, per diems, and other hidden costs are considered. Thus, it is often more economical to hire a professional firm. Improved automation reduces errors, increases productivity, and increases repeatability of results, all of which can be critical if labor is limited. Many of these limitations can also affect their ability to translate the technology and form a startup company transforming a great idea into a great product.
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