Automation in the lab can be defined as any equipment or instruments able to perform tasks with minimal manual input from staff. Purchasing equipment or automation software for the lab may seem like an unnecessary expense if tasks can be carried out manually, but substantial inefficiencies can arise when staff have to be hands-on with simple but repetitive tasks – such as labeling tubes, capping or liquid handling. It is helpful to frame the upfront cost of automation in terms of long term cost and time-savings. Staff time has become increasingly valuable across the lifespan of the pandemic, with social distancing measures limiting how many individuals can be working in-person at any given time and the outsized growth in wages the life science industry is experiencing. Many industries are also seeing increases in throughput – notably life sciences, with more variants emerging that need to be analyzed and processed. This puts on-site time in the lab at a premium, making necessary manual tasks more costly than ever in terms of opportunity cost and output.
Automation is becoming more common in the lab not only in the form of equipment, but also in software. Cloud computing and the Internet of Things are becoming more useful, used in conjunction with AI and machine learning. AI is becoming increasingly valued for its analytical power, using data collected from instruments to identify patterns, in turn “[aggregating] data more quickly, and [finding] analytical insights that otherwise wouldn’t be found.” Machine learning can then be used to make predictions, based on the aggregations of data. Combining these powerful tools eliminates tedious analytical work, freeing up valuable staff. An example is the use of an AI to analyze breath tests. Patients breathe into a bag which is then analyzed using mass spectrometry, and results are interpreted by an AI in under a minute.
Labs with high throughput and high sample volumes are likely to perform certain kinds of tasks repeatedly. This can become monotonous and boring for staff, whose time could otherwise be directed towards higher value objectives and science, or interpreting analytical results. This is likely to churn staff, who may become frustrated with the simplicity of manual tasks relative to their level of education. Payscale estimates the average hourly cost for a research scientist in the biotechnology industry as $43.75 – which can raise the opportunity cost for menial tasks considerably. When dealing with high volume tasks, staff may also find it difficult to keep pace without making mistakes, potentially creating stressful crunch periods. This is where automation of certain processes can increase overall lab productivity and reduce staff churn – reducing the need for experienced staff to carry out low-value manual tasks, as well as the number of staff that need to be allocated to these tasks.
Automating repetitive manual tasks reduces workloads for staff, allowing them to be reallocated to more stimulating and valuable work. Redirecting staff efforts is likely to boost rates of work satisfaction, and in turn staff retention. With less time dedicated to hands-on and repetitive tasks, staff are at liberty to focus on doing ‘real science.’ Staff do not then need to spend time overseeing the completion of manual tasks – simply calibrating automation machinery, and leaving it to perform the work. Speeding up time-consuming manual tasks is one of the principal benefits of lab automation. This is of great benefit in industries where samples need to be processed quickly in order to preserve sample integrity. Biological samples may be unique and impossible to replace or replicate, raising the cost of error during processing. Automation works not only to speed up time-consuming processes considerably, but also removes the risk of human error, which can become prevalent during repetitive high volume tasks. Automating the labeling of tubes, for example, ensures that labels are legible and accurate, even when processing in large quantities. Reducing the risk of error aids in delivering more consistent and reproducible results, boosting the credibility of the lab’s work and simultaneously reducing remediation costs arising from having to re-examine or retest unreliable samples.
Automation also helps reduce the incidence of repetitive strain injuries, which are more likely to occur when processing large volumes of samples. Pipetting, for example, is one of the most commonplace tasks in labs – and also one of the most repetitive. Studies have revealed a correlation between hours of pipetting in the lab and hand and shoulder ailments. These strain-related injuries can easily be negated through the use of automation machinery, working to increase lab and staff productivity as well as reducing time taken off of work.
Lab Manager provides a helpful list of considerations when weighing up which lab processes could be automated. Firstly, it is more economical to automate in stages rather than all at once. Taking a piecemeal approach preserves budget, and allows for staff to adjust to operational changes and become familiar with equipment. It is important to audit your workspace to determine how equipment will affect workflow, as well as considering soundproofing, heat generation, and waste disposal to optimize layout. Ensuring that new equipment is compatible with the current inventory of instruments will also help to reduce any friction during the implementation process. The flexibility of your automation stack is also important, in its ability to integrate with new or changing processes. Requesting demos during the consultation process will allow you to test for compatibility, and ensure the equipment is the right fit for the needs of your lab.
As day-to-day lab operations change in a post-pandemic landscape, necessity and technological advances are increasing the pay-offs for automation. Equipment and software that can streamline tedious manual tasks frees up valuable time for staff, allowing resources to be redirected towards higher value objectives. This works not only to increase lab productivity but to reduce the incidence of work-related injuries, and improve job satisfaction by allowing staff to prioritize more valuable tasks – namely analyzing data, designing experiments, and forming hypotheses. Here at TubeWriter, we specialize in helping you get the most out of your people. Get in touch today to find out how TubeWriter labware printing systems can unlock the potential of your lab.
Your message (optional)