For over two decades, automation has been essential in routine lab work. Beyond its benefits in optimizing efficiency, reproducibility, quality, and safety, automation ensures that discovery laboratories can help accelerate new drugs and therapeutics and, once those treatments reach the clinic, that clinical laboratories provide physicians and their patients with information and diagnoses in a timely manner. Today, during the greatest public health crisis of our lifetime, “routine” lab work means something entirely different than it did one year ago. In early 2020, diagnostic and research labs were simply not prepared for the challenges that were to come—especially from a technological standpoint with the degree of automation necessary to process a rapidly increasing number of PCR samples, or the rate of innovation required in a day.
Lab leaders considering a new automation initiative to improve their workflows should know already that these projects are not without challenges. To avoid some of the common ones, be sure to ask and answer these five questions to set up the initiative for success.
What beyond technology will help future-proof the lab?
Pre-pandemic, most lab organizations would have felt adequately prepared for a modest influx in testing demand. Today, those feelings are long gone. These same lab teams are in a state of shock, as they never could have anticipated the situation that was to come. But shock does not mean that they are stagnant. Instead, labs are actively working to prepare themselves for future situations such as this one, and technology is just one piece of the puzzle to solve.
Beyond instruments and equipment, lab leaders should adopt an entirely new mindset when it comes to workflow improvements. Some of the greatest limitations in the lab aren’t technical at all—they’re mental. Resistance to automation and inability to be flexible to new technological demands will almost certainly impede success in future crisis situations. With a critical eye, each area and manual/mechanical process in the lab should be examined for efficiency. Those that prove to be a bottleneck in the process are where automation is best focused.
For instance, if a lab currently accepts samples in three different types of tubes, it requires an instrument with a camera to recognize the type of each tube that is received, and then a system to send it to one of three different kinds of de-capping mechanisms. Thinking carefully through this scenario, most would agree that process is inefficient, and that there will be significant advantages in asking clients to standardize the samples they submit. Implementing these kinds of changes will come with some pushback, but in the long term it will be beneficial—especially if, or when, the world must face the next pandemic.
How do we ensure lab employees embrace change?
Regardless of how impressive or advanced new lab technology may be, it will not be effective if the people using it aren’t familiar or fully comfortable with it. Furthermore, ensuring lab employees embrace technological change becomes more challenging if they view automation as a threat instead of the helpful support resource that it is.
Automation exists to aid lab personnel in their work—not take it away as it improves quality and accuracy of lab results, which ultimately benefits patient safety. With studies showing that 60 to 70 percent of critical medical decisions are made by physicians based on lab results, there is no room for error. Similarly, for labs responsible for drug and therapeutics discovery and development, generally only a small percentage of drugs successfully make it through clinical trials. When it comes to approvals and most importantly, consumer safety, the stakes are equally high.
Additionally, with managing a lab’s human resources, leaders should communicate early and often how automation will be used to their team’s advantage while accounting for a lack of trained lab personnel. Due to the aging population globally, the number of samples arriving in labs is going to continue increasing while the qualified workforce shrinks. A large percentage of lab employees are nearing retirement age, while accredited clinical laboratory science programs cannot graduate students quickly enough to fill these roles. After spending five years at university, the scientists that do end up taking these jobs should not be asked to spend their time with manual, monotonous tasks, which often become costly and do little to empower lab outcomes. Adequately valuing the education level of lab employees and delegating the appropriate kinds of work to automation technologies effectively helps labs do more with less while keeping staff satisfied and engaged in their work too.
To what extent should we automate data?
Automation in the lab should not be limited to mechanical operations. Data and automation go hand in hand—from sample entry to sample result. When every minute counts, particularly in reporting of COVID-19 cases or racing toward treatments and prevention, the willingness of lab organizations to adapt and integrate tools for data automation could prevent a local outbreak well before it can begin.
Like mechanical automation, today’s data automation technologies are highly impactful in the lab. Data analytics and related technologies help organize and make sense of what can feel like an overwhelming amount of information.
When evaluating software options, lab leaders should look for solutions that can act as a central, intuitive and secure interface for all instruments and an existing laboratory information system, as needed. COVID-19 has illustrated the need for more remote collaboration between scientists, while at the same time continuing to demand timely, accurate, and protected communications, data leverage, and reporting of results. There are a number of open, flexible platforms on the market that allow for remote monitoring and control of lab processes from socially-distanced or offsite benches. Most importantly, these back-end platforms free up time for lab employees to focus on science instead of data mining, which ultimately has a greater value add for the lab.
How do we rationalize the cost?
Through the pandemic, we’ve learned that return on investment should be calculated with more than just numbers. The impact of lab work should be viewed through a much broader lens.
The cost associated with lab instruments and supplies should be of little concern when compared with the ultimate impact they have on global health and the global economy. A $50 dollar test, for instance, could have a benefit that is 500 times greater, such as ensuring a workplace or school stays open, that a family has a source of income, etc.
With this understanding, labs can more easily rationalize an investment in technologies that may not be utilized to 100 percent capacity every day. And, the benefit of doing so is agility needed to respond to changing demands in a timely manner.
How will we select our vendors and service providers?
In addition to internal process changes, the lab organization should anticipate change in how it interacts with vendors and service providers. The “new normal” way of working has changed significantly due to the pandemic and will likely continue to do so for some time to come.
Today, remote sessions for sales discussion, application support, product training, and services are the norm. Fortunately, in many cases this saves time and increases both productivity and efficiency for lab and service provider alike. With due diligence, lab leaders should look for service providers that can sustain the performance of a new, automated lab long term—both from basic break and fix and uptime levels to strategic planning. The best service partners are those that act as an extension of the lab team—supporting efforts to keep pace with regulatory compliance, potential lab relocation efforts required, and other efforts that come with navigating this new ever-changing environment.
As a closing thought, lab leaders and employees should recognize that the toughest bottleneck to eliminate is the one in our minds. When we allow ourselves to think differently about automation and its benefits—and encourage our colleagues to do the same—we will come out on the other side of COVID-19 stronger and ready to solve the challenges of tomorrow.