All labs face the challenge of higher expectations, greater demands on time and budgets, and pressure to deliver outcomes faster. Many labs are addressing these challenges by adopting some form of lab automation, which enables technical work to be completed with less reliance on the hands of the lab staff. Modern lab robots can safely and accurately deliver a wide range of lab activities including complex sample preparation, rapid analysis, and large designed experiments. Once these experiments are initiated, lab staff can walk away and complete other, higher-value activities.
Despite these contributions to the lab, automation still inspires fear in some lab staff which revolves around the replacement of human staff with robots and computers. To build a vision for how increased lab automation can improve work conditions and success, lab managers need to educate themselves and staff about the positive impact the adoption of these tools can have. This education will need to address several key areas, including an effective vision of the future, understanding the value of lab staff, driving higher value activities, increasing productivity, and improving opportunity decisions.
Effective vision of the future
One of the keys to any successful change management project is the development of a coherent vision of the future. Lab managers must have a defined idea of what the future lab looks like as the first step, and then determine how lab automation fits into that picture. This vision needs to address the benefits for both the lab and the staff and show people how they will be valued contributors after lab automation is installed and running. The vision will clarify how the technical problems will be solved, how the automation will be implemented, and the benefits of the work dedicated to the change.
After a vision is defined, it is important to communicate it to staff in a variety of ways to build support and maximize its chances of success. Communicating change requires dedication and repetition. Lab staff will need time to process and adopt the changes in the lab. To continually reinforce the value of the change, it will be helpful to develop a concise, 60-second elevator speech about the direction, benefits, and value of implementing lab automation.
Understanding the value of lab staff
Lab automation is not a cure-all for challenges faced in the lab. The robots, hardware, and software included in an automation investment can’t complete all of the important lab functions. To be successful, labs will need to prioritize the activities that only human staff can successfully complete. While lab automation can be very successful in delivering a wide range of repeatable tasks, lab staff are required to deliver the higher-order thinking for the science in the lab to be successful. Successful lab managers will invest in automation to make more time available for staff to deliver creativity, technical innovation, and critical thinking. Lab staff will need to design, set up, and evaluate the experiments turned over to automated tools.
Instead of threatening jobs, lab automation is an investment that can make lab roles more interesting and important. Those automation tools will accomplish dedicated tasks faster and with greater precision, which will require creative critical thinking sooner and more often to keep science progressing.
Driving higher-value activities
In this era of faster delivery from the lab, most labs would benefit from providing staff with more time to think about science and its challenges and problems. Lab automation provides the opportunity for many of the tedious burdens of lab work to be delegated to machines. Once the automation is installed and operational, lab staff can spend more time clarifying the questions, creating better options, critically evaluating data, converting data into information, knowledge, and insight, and making decisions about the next steps. Labs will benefit from having more people-time applied to these important parts of doing good science. In most labs, the time spent on critical thinking is limited due to all of the tasks required to execute the science and run the lab. Lab automation can improve that situation while delivering a highly valuable commodity to the lab staff: time to think.
Improving productivity means producing more output at an equal cost. The key benefit of increasing lab automation isn’t cost reduction, but better productivity. Since lab automation works around the clock, doesn’t need breaks, doesn’t sleep, and works straight to the end of the process, more samples can be processed per day. However, those automated systems need to be told what to do. By increasing the time for lab staff to think about the science, evaluate choices, and design better experiments, the lab can deliver better outcomes faster. That productivity will make key stakeholders happy and provide a better financial foundation for the lab.
Improving opportunity decisions
An important benefit of lab automation is increasing walkaway time for scientists, which enables them to complete other important tasks for the lab. When staff are completing work in one area, another area is incomplete, meaning the lab suffers an opportunity cost. As staff perform lab work that could readily be completed by lab automation, the lab is missing the opportunity for those same staff to accomplish other, higher-value work. Opportunity cost can be monetized and used to develop effective return on investment calculations to improve the business case for investment in lab automation.
As more labs adopt automation, they will demonstrate the benefits associated with letting automation do the tedious and repetitive work and gain the benefits of using staff time for more critical thinking and creative work. The future is bright for clear collaboration between human scientists and lab automation that enables staff to ask better questions, solve technical challenges faster, improve productivity, and free more time for creative thought.