Why automate your lab?
Chances are you're familiar with automated sample preparation tools like liquid handlers and automatic pipettors. Having robots prep samples for analysis or diagnostic procedures is the most common way managers introduce automation to their labs, and it's certainly a great place to start — automating those tasks can drive significant time savings and optimize your employees' time.
But why stop there?
It's easier than ever to extend automation to analysis, post-analysis, and even administrative tasks like inventory management. Introduce that technology and suddenly, you're streamlining five or six aspects of your lab instead of just one. The time and money you saved by automating sample prep is multiplying, and your budget can stretch further than ever.
Let's take a look at what automation would look like in each area of your lab.
Pre-analytical processes are among the first to be automated in many labs. These procedures, like pipetting and slide staining, require relatively simple mechanics and are thus easiest to automate. Many mid- to large-size, established labs will already have liquid handlers integrated into their workflow, but plenty of small labs will have technicians manually pipetting microplates.
If you're one such small lab, it may be worth buying a liquid handler or other sample prep station instead of doing it all manually. While the upfront cost may cause hesitation, remember that the equipment isn't merely an expense — it's an investment. This equipment will allow your lab techs to focus on higher-value priorities that can more effectively take advantage of the critical thinking, attention to detail, and creative problem solving that only the human mind is capable of.
Additionally, preparing samples by hand can lead to repetitive strain injury. If you want your staff to stick around, take measures to protect their health.
Thanks to the rise of machine learning, image recognition systems like those found in cell viability analyzers help streamline analytical processes by performing cell counting, analyzing sample interactions when reagents are introduced to determine cell viability, and more. Many current-gen systems have networking capabilities that facilitate communication with a laboratory information management system (LIMS), thus also removing the step of uploading data to a server for further analysis and storage.
Many people have reservations about computers interpreting analysis results. While far from perfect, these systems comprise another layer of automation that can save time and hedge against human error — after all, humans are far from perfect as well. When man and machine work in tandem to interpret results from patient samples or experiments, the chance of something significant being overlooked is minimized. In short, these machines aren't intended to replace people, but augment our capabilities.
Processes carried out after an experiment or diagnostic procedure, such as labeling samples and documenting results, can also be expedited with technology. For instance, histopathology labs benefit from slide printers that automatically label slides with unique identifiers like barcodes. Labeling slides by hand leaves a massive margin for error, especially if you have a high slide throughput. The printer negates that margin almost completely.
Similarly, networking capabilities built into modern equipment facilitate direct communication with a LIMS. It can send results directly to the LIMS, thus saving you the time of exporting results to a USB drive, plugging that drive into your computer, and then uploading the files manually.
Sample preparation and analysis aren't the only processes that benefit from automation. General administrative tasks, like inventory management and cross-department coordination, can also be streamlined with automation. Inventory management software like Quartzy can automatically detect and alert you when consumables and reagents are about to run out, and you can order more from within the application itself. This software also consolidates communication about assets and equipment, so you don't need to waste time sending emails or slapping sticky notes on the sides of instruments to let the lab manager know that consumables need replenished. Instead, you can leave comments tagged to specific items directly in the software, and anyone else using the software can see those comments and address them accordingly.
Thanks to the ever-growing connectivity capabilities of modern lab instrumentation, it's now possible to monitor your equipment's status in real-time over the Internet — no need to physically visit and inspect your equipment as often. Process statuses, errors, service notifications, and more can all be routed straight to your smartphone or email address, where you can then handle it remotely or delegate the task to someone on-site. PerkinElmer's PKeye Workflow Monitor software is an excellent example of what's possible with remote lab management programs.
Is automation for me?
Ultimately, it's a question of ROI — return on investment. Do you work in a small, low-throughput research lab with dynamic requirements and a tight budget? It may be best to hold off on automation, as the upfront cost of the equipment can easily run you into the tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of dollars.
But maybe you manage a large, high-throughput clinical lab. In this scenario, your equipment needs will remain consistent and your sample throughput will be relatively stable. You're then in prime position to automate because you know that you'll get a very high return on your equipment investment, and important patient results can be delivered in a more timely fashion and with a narrower margin for error.