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Digitalization in the Lab: Pioneering Transformation of Industrial Laboratories with IoT


As part of Umicore’s digital transformation, we seek to enhance the efficiency of workflows for our laboratory technicians using Internet of Things (IoT) technology.

In 2023, the Automotive Catalyst (AC) laboratory in Hanau, Germany, implemented the first full-scale application of IoT technology in lab operations, integrating it with existing laboratory equipment. This work focused on upgrading essential, non-IoT-equipped devices to enhance functionality rather than replacing them with newer equipment.  

One of our facilities in Hanau was a perfect environment to take this new approach to lab automation and workflow optimization. Like many labs in our AC business unit, it uses many specialized scientific devices that are not digitally connected.  Our lab technicians spend precious time manually inputting or collecting data from individual devices, monitoring equipment, and checking the status of tests and inventory stock.

‘’We lose a lot of time on manual tasks, often due to a lack of automation in small equipment. We wanted to overcome these inefficiencies to create a smarter, more interconnected lab environment where our skilled technicians can focus on their experiments, with fewer administrative tasks.’’

Sven Brauneis, Catalyst Preparation Manager

Streamlined lab operations

This transformation has streamlined AC lab operations, positioning us at the forefront of technological innovation for Umicore laboratories, while making eco-friendly and cost-effective choices.

Our digitalization strategy for such facilities includes the Sample App for mobile phones and the innovative “IoT Box”– a compact industrial programme logic controller (PLC) that fits in any laboratory fume hood to act as a cloud hub. Developed in-house at Umicore by a cross-functional team, these new digital tools have transformed lab operations into seamless and intuitive processes.

Zeno Verboven, from Corporate Digitalization, played a key role in the development of the IoT boxes: “These devices significantly enhance shop floor operations, offering efficiencies in real-time monitoring and predictive maintenance.’

Barry van Setten, leading the Competence Center of Lab Methods and the Project Manager for this IoT initiative, underscores its strategic importance: “By adopting the same software in our IoT Box as in our larger PLCs in production facilities, we facilitate easy scalability across our Business Unit and reinforce our commitment to standardization. This approach is crucial to significantly enhance operational efficiency and elevate automation on a worldwide scale.’’

Digital Workflow Integration

A key advantage of the Sample App is that it allows technicians to move from back offices to the lab floor, enabling real-time data entry during measurements via a comprehensive barcoding system. This transition places technicians at the heart of lab activities, improving data accuracy and streamlining collection. By integrating with the IoT boxes, the Sample App triggers automatic data capture, giving technicians a seamless overview of material and equipment data. This minimizes manual data entry and optimizes workflows.

With the data fed into our cloud-based Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS), we achieve a holistic view of lab operations, including data visualization through MS Power BI, a self-service BI application. Microsoft Teams alerts also support extended-duration measurements, aiding technicians in time management.

This integration, exemplifying our broader adoption of Office 365's business intelligence tools, underscores Umicore's commitment to digital democracy by making vital information universally accessible. Barry van Setten concludes: “The Sample App and IoT Box are not just tools; they are a testament to Umicore's commitment to digital innovation, seamlessly aligning with our sophisticated lab workflows and operational expertise, thereby continuously driving innovation in lab automation. This holistic approach marks a substantial leap in lab efficiency and data processing accuracy, reflecting our ongoing journey towards operational excellence.’’