When you think about the differences between lab instruments now and lab instruments fifty years ago, the contrast is a stunning one. Today's laboratory technologies have advanced further than anyone would have dared dream in the 1950's. Instruments have gotten more sophisticated every year and rapidly shrinking in size at the same time. Naturally, this has been a great thing for laboratory personnel - in terms of space alone, the changes in the instruments used in the lab have completely transformed the way that workflow is planned. Applications which once required an enormous amount of space or even several entirely separate facilities can now all be done on one relatively small amount of bench space.
Footprint is always the watchword with lab instruments, now as then. It boggles the mind to think of what used to be known as 'portable'; large, bulky (and heavy) instruments which required two or three people to carry have now been replaced by modern versions of these instruments which literally fit into the palm of one's hand. It's a pattern which has been seen in every category of instrument as it has with technology at large. The transistor begat the microchip, which begat the microprocessor and laboratory technologies have been able to become simultaneously more powerful and less bulky with each generation of design.
There are now lab instruments which use high powered modern dual or even quad processors which do the work of hundreds of thousands of transistors while taking up a small fraction of the older generation of instruments. There are examples of this evolution in design and miniaturization all around us in the laboratory. Think of chromatography instruments now versus those of twenty years ago - these are a prime example of instruments which once demanded a large amount of space in the lab; but are now available in sizes which can fit into your pocket while providing better performance. Nearly everything has changed - even those lab instruments which have not greatly reduced in size (like laboratory scales, for instance) have made incredible leaps in terms of accuracy and ease of use through the same technological advances which have allowed others to shrink.
The integration of computer systems into the laboratory has led to some of this miniaturization - and of course, computers themselves have and continue to become smaller and more powerful every year. The modern cell phone has more computing power than the once-mighty UNIAC and ENIAC systems. It's something to think about the next time a common annoyance of life in the laboratory gets to you - help is on the way, have no doubt about it.
The big breakthroughs in science and medicine often rely on the previous generations of technological innovations in lab instruments. While researchers work to create the next giant leap for humanity in the laboratory, there are others hard at work on developing and designing solutions to improving workflow in the lab and creating the conditions in which innovation can grow and thrive. It's an exciting time to be in the lab; and when you think about it, it always has been.