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Securing Success in Your Automated Lab

Anticipating risks, failures, and scaling needs to realize the full value of lab automation

Michael Schubert, PhD

Michael Schubert, PhD, is a veteran science and medicine communicator. He holds graduate degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology with a research focus on chromatin structure and function and has...

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Laboratories are increasingly turning to automation to increase quality and efficiency while minimizing risk and error. Guidance abounds for labs taking their first steps into the world of automated workflows—but for those already on board, information is scarce­­r. Where are issues most likely to arise? How can risks be managed? And when is it time to consider taking your automation to the next level?

Common failure points

Many of the most common error introduction points in lab automation take place at the interface between humans and computers. For example, one laboratory whose workflow required manual test requisition entry and communication of results found that most failures occurred at those points.1 In fact, after automating their clinical biochemistry and immunoassay testing, the lab saw an unexpected spike in errors—a fact they attributed to the need for a longer staff adjustment period. Other laboratories have reported issues with insufficient staff training, poor troubleshooting guidance, and accommodating new technologies in existing spaces not designed for them.2,3

Within the systems themselves, most errors occur in solenoids or sensors, which track specimens’ progress through the system. When these sensitive detectors become dirty, faulty, or misaligned, they may incorrectly report misplaced samples or even halt the system until the error is manually resolved. This may be as simple as realigning the part or as involved as fully replacing it.

Errors are also common in the barcode-reading process. Automated systems may struggle with barcodes that are poorly printed or adhered, potentially requiring new suppliers or printers for specimen labels. The readers may become dusty or smeared, resulting in incorrect barcode readings, or they can fail entirely due to laser misalignment. Even a tube that isn’t fully vertical—whether because it was placed crookedly in its carrier or because of inconsistent spring elasticity between carriers—can cause a barcode read failure.

Many of the most common error introduction points in lab automation take place at the interface between humans and computers.

Gripper failures, though not infrequent, are typically easy to resolve. Most gripper-related errors arise from tube misalignment in the carrier (causing the gripper to miss the tube), labels separating from tubes and adhering to grippers, or wear and tear on the pads. Fortunately, gripper motor failure is much rarer.1

Rarest of all were instrument errors related to communication, although the results of such errors—specimen pileups or system halts—have a disproportionate effect on overall downtime. Most such errors are preventable (insufficient water or reagent supply is a common culprit); some, however, are unavoidable. In general, devices with many moving parts present a higher overall failure risk—but, with careful preventative maintenance, downtime is often minimal.

Staying safe

In terms of safety, lab automation is best known for its ability to minimize people’s exposure to hazardous materials and reduce the strain of repetitive tasks. Although automation has risks of its own, pre-emptive action can help labs mitigate potential dangers and maintain a safe workspace.

  • Conduct a risk assessment. Before implementing a new system in your laboratory, understand the risks and hazards it may introduce and determine if and how these can be reduced or eliminated. Assign responsibilities as needed.
  • Provide in-depth training. Ensure that all users understand how the system works and what to do in the event of error. Make training and documentation easily accessible. If possible, aim to retain some familiarity in tasks and processes.
  • Contain systems appropriately. Automated systems still require manual interactions, which means that hazardous exposures are still a possibility. Employing suitable enclosures or clean environments can reduce risk without impacting workflow.
  • Avoid overcrowding. Automation may reduce the need for people to move between lab stations, but risks increasing the number of people in small areas.2 Plan to space analyzers out such that everyone has room to work without wasting space.
  • Provide protection. Large or complex equipment can increase workplace exposure to noise and heat.2 Ensure that staff have access to hearing protection (such as earplugs or noise-isolating headphones) and that a comfortable temperature is maintained.

Outgrowing your automation

You’ve established contingency plans for equipment failure and risk mitigation strategies to promote lab safety—and now you’re wondering what’s next in your drive for continuous improvement. How do you decide when to scale your laboratory’s automation—and how to go about it? Many of the signs to scale up will mirror those that motivated the initial move to automation:

  • Your test volume exceeds your staffing, time, resource, or skill capacity.
  • You want to increase accuracy or reduce error (in existing manual processes).
  • You want to increase speed or efficiency (for a specific process or overall).
  • You want to increase redundancy to reduce downtime.

The needs driving your decision to expand can also help you determine how to scale. Does it make more sense to increase the throughput of already automated processes or to expand your automation coverage to new processes? The former may offer a lower entry barrier because you’ve already made a successful case for automating those processes and can use real-world data from your laboratory to support the need for expansion. However, it can also present obstacles—the need to find new tools that integrate with or easily replace existing ones, the need to justify “upgrades” (and their associated costs) soon after implementation, the need to retrain staff, and more.

Introducing new areas of automation carries its own set of challenges. Priorities must be identified and new purchases justified. Systems must be accommodated in existing lab spaces and integrated with other equipment. You’ll want to pay careful attention to future-proofing—which areas of your laboratory are growing fastest? What tools and systems offer interoperability? How can you build flexibility and redundancy into your expanding workflows? And, of course, each leap forward in your laboratory’s technologies necessitates advocacy, training, problem-solving, and change management.

Leveling up your lab automation isn’t easy, but the advantages are worth the effort. With conscientious planning, solid redundancy and repair strategies, and thorough risk management procedures, labs can leverage automation to realize their full potential.


  1. Lam CW, Jacob E. Implementing a laboratory automation system: experience of a large clinical laboratory. J Lab Autom. 2012;17(1):16–23. doi:10.1177/2211068211430186.
  2. Lippi G, Da Rin G. Advantages and limitations of total laboratory automation: a personal overview. Clin Chem Lab Med. 2019;57(6):802–811. doi:10.1515/cclm-2018-1323.
  3. Genzen JR et al. Challenges and opportunities in implementing total laboratory automation. Clin Chem. 2018;64(2):259–264. doi:10.1373/clinchem.2017.274068.