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Inside the Lab Technology and innovation, Software and hardware, Laboratory management

Integrated Automation: A Different Approach

sponsored by Automata

What role does automation currently play in the lab?

Different labs have vastly different levels of automation. I’ve been in this space for a long time and what surprises me is that quite a lot of labs, even those in the western world, haven’t already fully adopted automation. I like to use a dishwasher analogy; if you have a machine that can wash dishes more efficiently, more consistently, and with more speed than a human, why wouldn’t you use it? To me, having a person stand in front of a lab bench pipetting over and over is a waste of valuable time and expertise.

So what do lab automation solutions look like to Automata?

We take a very different approach to traditional lab automation. I’ve been working in product and lab automation in the biotech world for almost 10 years now and the biggest issue is achieving true automation and removal of manual touch points. Many “automated” devices in labs can integrate with other instruments, but still require manual involvement somewhere in the workflow – for instance, to transfer consumables between instruments.

Automata has expertise in robots so, for us, automation really comes down to engineering effective, integrated solutions – from scratch if necessary. Rather than having a human stand there and connecting different instruments or act as the conduit between different liquid handlers, we look at how you can get the most out of your lab – whether by changing the location of a particular instrument, creating a transport layer that will move consumables between instruments, or installing software that can integrate all your workflows. Once you begin to marry software and hardware for smooth workflows, you start to see how much efficiency automation can bring. In practice, our consultants come into labs to perform the process optimization, but they also provide long-term support so that each lab’s processes are always fully optimized. Changes in a lab’s goals should never matter, because automation should always be flexible.

How do you think that will change in the future?

I think we’re moving toward a future of integrated labs. There is so much more to achieve that is already applied in other sectors. Take car manufacturing, for example. There, you have entire assembly lines of robots working together through different individual processes to create an automated workflow; the amount of manual interaction is very low. In the lab, these manual processes are things like capping, decapping, and liquid handling – but benchtop automation is just the beginning. The true revolution is the integration, through hardware and software, of every device in the workflow. Every lab in the future, whether research or clinical, will have removed manual interactions from their workflow – and, along with them, will have removed or reduced the chances of error, contamination, and wasted time. That’s where the real value lies – in truly automating those repetitive manual steps. Automation will never replace the people in the laboratory – but it can free up personnel to spend their time where it matters most.

What advantages does this approach offer?

There are five core advantages:

  1. a reduction in labor for manual tasks
  2.  dynamic process optimization
  3. contamination reduction
  4. complete traceability and remote functionality
  5. scalability

Given the potential cost and training hurdles to automation, what should labs keep in mind?

Labs should consider the costs of their current manual processes compared with their automated counterparts – with an emphasis on the time, cost, efficiency savings the latter can bring. With all of those savings factored in, automation is often cheaper!

Managers should also consider that manual processes can sometimes cause errors. Automation promotes a reduction in errors and inconsistency. It’s simple; a person won’t do an experiment exactly the same way every time, but a robot will.

How do you determine a fit between a lab application and an automation solution?

We understand how important it is that standard operating procedures (SOPs) are validated for labs looking to scale up – and it’s vital to automate SOPs in the most efficient way possible. We have integrated solutions offering flexibility, which means we can accommodate established workflows and instruments in your lab. We provide as much or as little consultation as each client wants. And there aren’t many workflows or SOPs that aren’t automatable – just ask us what’s possible and you might be surprised!

What are some key applications that have seen particular success with Automata solutions?

We have seen particular success with ELISA, cell culture, drug discovery, and genomics workflows, to name just a few. Fortunately, with advances in technology, automation is now achievable for all kinds of labs – even those with highly specialized workflows. So far, there’s not a single workflow that we haven’t been able to automate in some capacity – and we always welcome a challenge!

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