What is Lab Automation?
Reading time approx: 4 min
Reading time approx: 4 min
To embed automated technologies in the laboratory, creating an environment for current processes to improve and new ones to come into being. This is the definition and goal of laboratory automation.
At first, automation within laboratories was used mostly to take on the more menial tasks, for example preparation of the library or the handling of liquid. This used to be done by technicians or scientists but has since been taken over by machines. Yet technology continues to advance and more complex processes or even whole workflows are now able to be automated. With increasing demands from the market and its competitive nature, this has become almost mandatory.
The contemporary laboratory faces pressure, the need to enhance efficiency, quality and throughput is palpable. Yet the employee pool is often pushed beyond boundaries, causing issues that require solutions. Sample preparation, analysis, tests and workflows all eat away at the available time and energy, which laboratories could spend on more beneficial things.
Consequently, many laboratories have started to adopt automation, which saves time on the menial, while improving efficiency and precision. Whether it’s a Compact Robot, or a High-Performance one, taking on these solutions is often the difference in being profitable or perishing as a laboratory.
The main lab automation benefits are reproducibility (quality), informational precision, traceability, efficiency, safety, and faster translation.
The automated laboratories benefit greatly from the increase in efficiency, thanks to the robotic machinery, a greater output is created. Robots exceed humans when it comes to performing tasks in an efficient manner, reducing the time that is spent on more menial actions.
This means that lab technicians are freed from the more repetitive tasks previously assigned to them, giving them opportunities to help the laboratory in more productive ways. They can spend more time on researching, interpreting the received data or coming up with new solutions to problems faced by the laboratory.
Lab automation also increases the efficiency by reducing the amount of resources that have to be used in processes, by applying those materials in more precise ways.
By automating the workflows of the laboratory, time no longer becomes a limiting factor. With a self-reliant robot, preparing, analyzing and cleaning up after, laboratories can stay open day and night. This can prove to be very profitable.
On occasion, hazardous materials may be handled which could result in work related injuries. By letting automated machinery take over the tasks which involve a hint of danger, employees will be kept safe and sound.
Automation will also reduce the risk that staff encounter in the form of repetitive strain injuries, who no longer have to deal with the menial tasks. The risk of spillage is also diminished by lab automation.
The reliability of laboratory findings has always been a critical issue. A 2011 Nature survey brought to light the reproducibility crisis, revealing that a staggering 70% of researchers had failed to replicate another scientist’s experiments.
Automation is poised to minimize the inconsistencies and contamination risks introduced by human handlers, thereby enhancing the reliability of results.
In research settings, for instance, lab automation can facilitate the collection of experimental data at a higher rate, yield a greater volume of outcomes, and integrate a broader array of controls, all of which bolster the reproducibility of results. Such dependable data can serve as a solid foundation for subsequent research.
In clinical settings, automation can mitigate pre-analytical mistakes such as sample mislabeling, misplacement, or the incorrect selection of media.
Informational precision is essential for laboratories, luckily this can be boosted by lab automation. Automated analysis capabilities can for example determine the quality of fertilizer. The manufacturer is then able to change the formula so higher quality is achieved for the clients.
With the advent of AI comes new possibilities. Machine learning can now be integrated into the automation of laboratories. This improves the accuracy of the acquired information and the evaluation of said data. The algorithms achieve this by learning from the samples it encounters. It could learn from the detected nutrients in soil samples, coming up with a way to more effectively spot these valued nutrients and what soil to look out for.
Another key advantage of lab automation is traceability.
The ability to correlate test results with each other and with standards is of paramount importance in both academic and clinical lab environments. Data provenance, which outlines the history and origin of the data, is also a crucial component of traceability.
The issues encountered in maintaining traceability can be deflected by the use of lab automation. It increases the laboratory’s capabilities in processing samples, ensuring accuracy in both data and documentation. The chain of the custody of data will also be secured, making sure that all information is appropriately handled.
Automation can significantly boost the productivity of lab workers in facilities of all sizes by delivering a higher output than manual counterparts. This translates to more time for research, planning, or other protocols.
Research has demonstrated that clinical lab automation correlates with reduced turnaround times, thus allowing technicians to focus on tasks that require their expert training, such as plate reading and interpretation, rather than on repetitive tasks.
Moreover, automation can enhance efficiency by minimizing the use of reagents and media through precise dispensing.
Workflow automation in laboratories can even extend operational hours. For example, in microbiology labs, automated plating systems can handle specimens and inoculate plates around the clock.
Automation can also enhance safety in laboratories, especially where protocols necessitate handling hazardous chemicals and equipment. By automating these procedures, the risk to researchers and technicians is significantly reduced.
Additionally, increased automation lessens the likelihood of lab surfaces becoming contaminated with infectious biological samples and reduces the risk of repetitive strain injuries among lab staff.
By integrating automation into the researching process, time is spent less on translating the information into workable results. The route from research facility to commercial product is shortened by letting robots participate in the process, significantly decreasing temporal waste.
Tasks that are often seen as the most menial and prone to human error, are incidentally the ones that are often the ideal candidates for automation. Think of stirring, sorting, measuring, cleaning, dosing, liquid handling, solid handling, and other actions that are best performed by a robot.
Additionally, total laboratory automation can also involve even more impactful things like software designed to control processes, transportation via conveyor or robotics, and interfaces with analysis instruments up to sample storage and retrieval.
Laboratories have to contend with an increasing amount of information, which has to be processed perfectly. Many have opted for a LIMS in order to keep an eye on the data from samples, instrumentation and processes. The fusion of automation and LIMS data allows laboratories to gain a better understanding of their workflows and ways to improve those.
Let’s illustrate an example. A laboratory is tasked with analyzing a given sample of fertilizer in order to determine its validity as a future product. By using LIMS and automation in the process, time can be saved by allowing the technicians to fully focus on the analysis results, instead of being bogged down by the more repetitive activities.
Most laboratories that are making the switch to automation are still only partially automating certain parts. Automated instruments are bought for very specific purposes..
Partial automation eliminates the repetitive tasks that are part of a specific process in the laboratory. However, the instruments that are used for this purpose are often still operated by someone, with many steps still having to be performed manually. It is more apt to speak of mechanization in this case.
‘Full’ automation is the process of automating whole workflows, linking them together in order to include every part of the process. This laboratory workflow automation envelops both hardware and software to form a cohesive system that automates the entire workflow.
Modular lab automation solutions are a combination of robotics and automation in a modular way, giving laboratories the option to instantiate new workflows. These solutions are able to be easily taken apart and put back together by virtue of being modular. Modular automation systems are connectable by way of a track system or other lab automation robots.
A certain flexibility is afforded to those who employ modular automation that justify the price tag. Previously, lab automation was incredibly complex, very expensive and often bulbous, taking up a lot of space. Only the largest and wealthiest laboratories could afford automation. However, the rise of modular automation has made it so that smaller labs can now also benefit from lab automation.
Laboratory automation has seen substantial growth in the last few decades, with an increasing range of automated functions and modular options in the lab automation market. Although the initial driver may have been cost savings, opportunities to reduce turnaround time and increase reproducibility, quality, and safety are becoming increasingly apparent.
Lab automation has seen a surge in growth over the last decades, with an ever increasing range of functions that have the potential to be automated. Reproducibility, traceability, safety, informational precision and efficiency are all great benefits brought by the increasing automation. Together with these advancements came the option for modular solutions, opening up the world of lab automation to everyone instead of a select few. The future looks promising for those laboratories that are diving in headfirst.