“Good, cheap and fast. Pick two.”
– Manufacturing idiom.
The above quote is included to remind us all that there are no perfect solutions and in purchasing lab automation equipment we are balancing price, throughput, flexibility, scalability, durability, and a host of other factors. That being said here are some simple steps we recommend you go through to get started down the right path to purchasing lab automation equipment in a new lab or replacing automation in your existing processes.
Step 1. Make a flow chart of your current lab operation and/or automation.
This might feel like overkill and a good vendor may put this together for you, but breaking out Visio or PowerPoint to make a flow chart is time well spent and will make the rest of the lab automation selection process much less painful. Putting pen to paper and creating a flow chart will ensure all steps to process a sample are accounted for and allow/force vendors to present solutions that eliminate and / or automate specific steps.
Step 2. Optimize and stabilize your process without additional automation.
You can spend a lot of time spinning your wheels and wasting money applying amazing automation to a bad process. Sometimes the largest productivity gains happen without adding any automation and simply reorganizing, consolidating and eliminating steps.
If your process has just been in place a short time or is in a state of flux, it may also be better to hold off on purchasing an automation solution until you things have settled down and requirements are more predictable. Flexible personnel are great short-term solutions, but automated processes always win out at scale where repeatability is critical. And remember, if you need something now but have not settle on a process, scalable and flexible solutions when they do exist, usually cost more.
Step 3. Identify the bottleneck in the your process by assigning a time and / or cost to each step in the flow-chart.
Don’t forget to have the lab personnel actually doing the work do review this step since they can often uncover little details that are huge time sinks. Addressing a single step that is 80% of your pain is much more manageable than addressing 10 other steps that are only 20% of your pain. While this may seem obvious, do not forget to identify and quantify (might be difficult) steps where poor repeatability or poor ergonomics contribute to high costs.
Step 4. Know your throughput.
This step should really fall under the previous step, but it is so important I thought it deserved being separated out. Throughput tends to be the largest determinant of the correct solution. This is why for the same part, 3D printing is used for prototyping, machining for initial production runs and injection molding for high-volume production. It should also be noted that small problems at large scales are often worse than big problems at small scale since squeezing the final 10% improvement out of a process is more difficult and costly than the initial 10% improvement.
Step 5. Know the key metrics management is looking for ahead of time.
Available budget, ROI, throughput, scalability and ongoing / consumable costs. This will allow you to quickly filter out which solutions may make sense. Typically, our customers expect return on investment (ROI) for equipment to be between 1-3 years. This is why solar panels on homes have never done well since best case ROI scenarios start at 5 years. But that is a story for another day. Increasingly, ergonomic considerations to eliminate repetitive strain injuries and their downstream effects are driving automation initiatives.
Step 6. Evaluate multiple vendors and solutions
The saying in lab automation goes like this “Lab automation is great . . . when it works.” Not only do you have to evaluate a particular vendor’s experience and service records in a particular area, you should also evaluate the nature of the solution they are providing. As cool as it is to see robotics moving labware and reagents around, the fewer parts (especially moving ones) the better. Period.
Given your analysis in steps 1-4, you should know whether you are leaning towards purchasing specialized solutions that focus on one part of your process or larger solutions that integrate multiple pieces of hardware and software. Often times, semi-automation solutions that tackle a single but most painful step in the process have lower costs, greater flexiblity and shorter implementations times compared with the fully-automated dream solution. Not solution is perfect and an 80% solution is always better than no solution.
Step 7. Purchase and implementation plan.
Your justification for capital equipment has been submitted and approved. Now is the time coordinate with facilities and the vendor to allocate adequate space, prepare any special electrical / HVAC connections, build out any furniture or fixture, safety guards and arrange installation.
Once the system is installed, make sure your vendor offers thorough documentation and training. While we typically train an entire staff on our lab automation systems, we find it particularly useful to have one or two designated power users for both the staff and vendor to interact with should a problem arise.
Step 8. Take a bow.
Congratulations! Detailing your own requirements, evaluating solutions, getting buy-in from staff and management, installing a solution and training users is more work than people think. It is not glamorous, but done right, your company should see higher quality, happier employees and more profits from their decision with purchasing lab automation equipment.
Hopefully this guide was helpful. As always, I love to hear any comments or feedback.