7 questions to consider before buying an automated liquid handling system for your lab

Large, small, or somewhere in between, today’s labs are embracing automation as a means of carrying out ever more efficient and complex research. At the center of these automated work cells, the liquid handler is central to optimizing efficiency, achieving more reliable, repeatable results and increasing throughput.  

If you’re preparing to invest in a liquid handling workstation, you’ve got a lot to consider. To avoid buyer’s remorse, ask yourself these 7 questions before making a final decision about the best solution for you:

Can the instrument accommodate your needs today and in the future?

Automation can be a significant investment for any lab. Be sure the solution you choose meets your current workflow and throughput requirements while offering enough flexibility to enable future discovery needs.

For many, an open or modular system design designed to accommodate tube- or plate-based workflows offers sufficient flexibility to meet the needs of multi-operator labs and protocols.  

Can it be integrated with a wide variety of third-party devices? 

Accounting for future needs is essential when investing in a liquid handler. In terms of the hardware, virtually all liquid handlers are designed to accommodate integration with third-party devices and robotics. 

Before making any decisions, be sure your OEM has proven integration and workflow optimization expertise, as well as experience working with labs of all types and sizes. A partner willing and able to work with a wide variety of third-party device manufacturers helps ensure your needs are put first. And, always ask for references.

Are the system and software easy to learn and easy to use? 

Bottom line: Will the system do what you need it to do, and will you be able to do it with reasonable ease? Researchers today demand a lot from automated systems, yet they don’t have the time to deal with steep learning curves. With increasingly complex experimentation, there’s also more focus than ever on content and data interpretation.

As OEMs respond with increasingly more robust instruments, it’s important to choose a system with standardized solutions that are easy enough to learn and use but don’t limit or compromise the flexibility of the overall system.  

Request and invest time in software demonstrations before making a decision. There’s no better way to assess how easy it is to use than to see it in action.

Will your system support bi-directional data transfer? 

A system with a bi-directional LIMS interface will accommodate secure data exchange with full traceability. A broad range of formats should be manageable including  Microsoft ®Excel®, Adobe ® PDF, CSV, XML, etc. Also consider what additional software tools might be available to centrally manage operation of multiple systems.  

Does it include built-in safety features to protect your samples and prevent data loss if the unexpected happens?

Automation helps minimize human error, yet no system is completely immune to unanticipated issues. Advanced features such as a safety light curtain are designed to automatically halt operation should a foreign object enter the work area, which helps ensure operator safety. Also, look for a system that protects against data loss whenever workflow interruptions occur. 

How will you maintain your investment?

Downtime is costly—and for many labs, a critical issue. Maximizing the value of what might be the most expensive component in your automated work cell requires access to service and support experts with the technical and workflow knowledge specific to your instrument and your research.

Unless you have that expertise on staff, the OEM is often the most prudent choice for maintaining your system and ensuring issues are resolved by certified professionals. The more critical the instrument is to keeping your research on track, the more consideration you should give to a service contract that offers onsite and direct-connect phone support, immediate availability of parts and guaranteed service coverage. 

Is your vendor representative adding value to your decision-making process? 

The best partner will focus on understanding your research first—what you’re doing today and how your needs may evolve over time. An automation specialist with the right combination of technical and workflow knowledge is able to go beyond features and functionality to help you select a system that will meet your lab’s threshold for return on investment.

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