Getting Started with Laboratory AutomationAs labs of varying sizes have discovered over the past decades, automating manual and repetitive tasks, particularly those that are the most hazardous or error-prone, can increase productivity, decrease turnaround time, improve staff safety and minimize errors. In addition, integrating automated systems with multiple widely used laboratory devices helps optimize throughput, improve results quality and further contain/decrease costs. But no two laboratories are identical, so no two labs need identical strategies for automating and/or integrating their lab hardware and software. Some labs might be ready to integrate only a few steps of the analytical process, while others aspire to achieve total laboratory automation (TLA).
Start with the Basics
Regardless of the simplicity or complexity of your lab’s automation/integration needs, the two most important factors for ensuring success are:
1. Creating short- and long-term plans
2. Partnering with vendors that understand your current needs and long-term goals
Start by creating thorough transition plans that will take you from your lab’s current state to the future state(s) you envision. Your plans will invariably include evaluating new products and technologies, which provides the opportunity to identify vendors/partners with the science and laboratory automation expertise to help you successfully implement your automation and integration plans.
Integrating diverse technologies and instruments used for research and development has long been a challenge for many global industries. These include pharma and biopharma, petrochemicals and energy, food and beverage, forensics, agriculture and an ever-growing number of biotechnology-focused companies.
When purchasing laboratory automation, one of the early decisions to make is how much of the workflow will be automated. Automated liquid handlers will automate pipetting and microtiter plate manipulations. However, by adding additional laboratory devices to the liquid handler, like a plate reader, more of the workflow can be automated. Workflow integrations require experience with—and expertise in—numerous complex processes. Examples include: biochemical and phenotypic screening assays, cell growth and optimization, target preparation for genetic analysis (including next-generation sequencing), nucleic acid extraction from various sources, assay development and optimization, and an array of critical quality control (QC) processes.
To ensure success, a comprehensive integration plan must accommodate an array of standard laboratory devices and, where applicable, software used with those devices. This includes—but is not limited to—plate washers, readers, imagers, transport devices and management devices (e.g., for sealing, piercing), barcode readers, temperature-controlled storage devices, microplate centrifuges, bulk reagent dispensers, tube handling and capping/decapping devices, and safety and biocontainment enclosures.
Software for System Integrations
Designing an automated, integrated system is not only about hardware – every time your sample moves, data moves.
If your lab is like most, you want to simplify the complexity of sample and data handling through intelligent processing, whether your process is a 60-minute single method or a 60-day multi-phase effort. Software will drive, schedule, and track your entire workflow and make it easy to map your assay workflow onto the system.
In addition, you need software that can discover errors before a run begins, and shows your labware moving throughout the entire process. This software should also be able to address device failures using predefined responses—or alert you via e-mail, audible alarm or an on-screen prompt.
Any software solution you choose should allow you to easily access and generate reports about your runs, labware and samples at any time. Data must be seamlessly transferred between methods so there’s no need to read intermediate text files. Finally, the software you select must be able to serve as a direct data source for external information tracking systems and a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS). This provides a data pathway free of human interaction to help ensure the most reliable reporting to enterprise data systems.