Whether to automate your lab can be a very important decision you make as a lab manager. The choice can be as simple as choosing the automated version of a benchtop instrument or as complicated as adding an entire automated system consisting of multiple robots, microplate stackers, and so on. If your lab is performing a lot of the same sorts of tasks over and over, and staff are either getting bored or finding it hard to keep up without making mistakes, it’s probably a good time to think about adding more automation. But how do you decide on the level of automation for your facility?
This article offers an overview of what lab automation is, the benefits it offers, key technologies available, how to decide when to automate your facility, and how to successfully implement automated technologies into your lab.
What do we mean by the term “lab automation”?
“Lab automation” refers to any lab equipment or instruments that can perform tasks in the lab with very little hands-on action from staff. Because of the huge numbers of tests and experiments they need to complete on a regular basis, large-scale automation featuring robotic workstations is most common in clinical, pharmaceutical, and life sciences labs.
Main benefits of automating your lab
When implemented correctly, automation can greatly speed up processes in your lab and remove tedious tasks from your staff, ensuring they can focus on more stimulating work. This in turn boosts employee satisfaction and retention. Some key benefits of automating your lab include:
- Saves staff time for more engaging work
- Increases efficiency in the lab
- Removes human error and enables more reproducible, consistent results
- Improves lab safety by reducing the risk of repetitive strain injuries
A few examples of lab automation benefits include increasing sample throughput and enabling researchers to run many experiments at once or test many samples at once using high throughput experimentation.
Things to consider when deciding if you should automate your lab
No matter what type of lab you work in or whether your industry is regulated or not, there are a few basic questions you should ask to help you decide whether increasing automation is right for you:
- Which tasks in the lab are the most repetitive and routine?
- How often are you performing these tasks on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis?
- Which processes need to be mistake-proofed?
- How many steps do these processes include?
- How much space do you have for equipment?
- What equipment is absolutely essential to automate your lab?
- How will you implement the equipment in your lab? (Consider not only the physical installation but how you’ll notify your staff of the changes and train them on the new instrumentation)
- What is the cost to benefit ratio of the needed equipment?
- What software/IT infrastructure is required?
Key lab automation technologies
While automated systems for the lab can get quite expensive, companies are offering more budget-friendly options to labs who need to automate a few processes, but don’t require fully automated workstations to get the job done. There are also automated versions of single lab instruments if managers don’t need to do a full overhaul of their labs, but just require a single process to be faster and more efficient. Some of the most common types of lab automation instruments/equipment include:
- Cell imaging
- Liquid handling
- Robotic workstations
For a list of the major lab automation equipment manufacturers, click here.
How to successfully automate your lab:
You’ve given it a lot of consideration and decided that automating your lab is the right choice, but how do you ensure it’s done right? From staff buy-in to choosing the right equipment, there are a few main things to consider before a lab automation project gets underway.
Clear and frequent communication
Involve your staff at the very beginning of the lab automation process. Reassure them that they aren’t going to be replaced by robots and highlight the positives of the project. Since they are likely the ones most familiar with the workflows you’re looking to automate, getting their input and advice on what equipment to buy and where it should be placed is critical. Just keeping staff informed of each step in the process and ensuring they are properly trained on the new equipment are also important steps to a smooth transition.
Automate all at once or in stages?
Depending on budget and time, you may not be able to automate everything all at once. Today’s lab automation instruments are modular and you can add equipment or expand over time. Think about which processes are the most important to automate today, tomorrow, and further down the line.
Choose the right processes to automate
Almost any process in your lab can be automated, but that doesn’t mean it should be. A good rule of thumb is to automate tasks staff do most often and that are the most time consuming and repetitive. A task may be tedious, but if you only need to do it a few times per month, it may not be worth automating.
Have clearly defined goals
What is your main purpose in automating your lab and what do you hope to gain? Whether it’s cutting waste in the lab or improving staff retention by ensuring lab workers’ days are spent on thoughtful and engaging tasks, having a clearly defined goal will help you stay on target and get staff buy-in when discussing your intention to automate the lab.
One thing that often gets overlooked in lab automation projects is the software that will be running the equipment. You can choose the most sophisticated instruments in the world, but if they don’t integrate well with your choice of software, or the software doesn’t integrate well with your overall IT infrastructure, your project could be a disaster. How user-friendly the software is can also make or break a lab automation implementation. Make sure you explore software options carefully and always request demos to test out in advance to ensure the software will do what you need it to. This will help you and your team identify any software issues before making a final selection.
Even when done well, automating your lab means huge changes for you, your staff, and the facility as a whole. However, with careful planning, thoughtful consideration of all the options available, and clear communication with your team, automating your lab can be the best decision you make as a lab manager.