A beginner’s guide for end-to-end laboratory workflow automation success

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August 31, 2022  |  Trends

We see many manufacturers in the life sciences industry talking about how to get started with automation, often thinking about a liquid handler and branching out from there. The fact is that there’s a whole spectrum of automation, and liquid handlers are just one critical part.

Let’s talk about the lab automation spectrum and what to think about if you’re just getting started.

What is lab automation?

You’re probably already familiar with it. Lab automation is liquid handlers, centrifuges, peelers, sealers, sample refrigeration, robotic arms, and any other device that takes the manual load off scientists in the lab. All of these devices are just like the washing machine and dishwasher for the household, helping speed things up for you so you can do things you’d rather be doing.

hero automation

So often when lab automation is brought up as a topic, there are cries of worry about instrumentation and robotics replacing people in the lab. The purpose of lab automation is not to eliminate jobs, but to execute tedious tasks with consistency, precision, and without a lot of complaining or strained body parts. It is also well suited to keep experiments running overnight and on the weekends. We can think of quite a few laboratory tasks that benefit from automation:

  • Pipetting samples
  • Reformatting existing samples
  • Moving samples around the lab to be incubated, chilled, sealed, or peeled, or more
  • Restocking consumable lab items
  • Following a rigid schedule to keep cellular development on track

Think about how you feel about the washing machine that washes your clothes. And know that, for us at Biosero, we think about automation the exact same way for chores around the lab.

The goal is to allow automation to support scientists so scientists can get back to doing what is uniquely and wonderfully human: thinking up the next step, intuiting the next question, and convincing everyone to get on board with it.

Looking back into lab automation history, it’s the desire for streamlined and helpful automation that drove the design of the microplate, that familiar tool in the lab. In the 1990s, the SBS (Society for Biomolecular Screening) standardized the microplate with the goal of streamlining automation. The organization, now the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening, is dedicated to the idea of automating tasks in the lab. If you want to learn more about lab automation industry-wide, they’re a great resource.

The lab automation spectrum and where you are on it

Just because you’re familiar with the building blocks of lab automation, like the devices that do the work, doesn’t mean you’re comfortable with the spectrum of labs running automation today.

The spectrum looks like this:

Not Automated / Manual

In a Manual Lab, the scientist is still the workhorse pipetting, transferring samples, and doing the physical labor to answer scientific questions.

You might see this type of lab at the university level when you’re learning science, but you could see it anywhere that has limited budgets for hardware and can put the burden on people instead.

Stand-Alone Automated

In a lab with Stand-alone Automation, devices are brought in to help with specific tasks, like reading plates or dispensing reagents. Each device has one job, and a scientist likely brings over the samples and takes them away.

This is the most frequent implementation of automation you’ll see for labs just getting started or that also have limited budgets for hardware. It’s easier to blend people and stand-alone devices without having to learn a new discipline: automation engineering.

Semi-Automated

In the Semi-automated Lab, the pipetting powerhouse of the industry makes its debut: the liquid handler. These workstations can not only manage tedious pipetting down to nano-sized dispenses, but they are capable of integrating with other devices in the lab, like peelers, sealers, heaters, and more.

Most professional labs have at least one liquid handler. Why? Because they take the pure tedium out of pipetting all day, and when partnered with an automation engineer, are smart enough to play well with other robotics to extend walkaway times.

Full Integration

Full Integration is the hardest act to pull off in the laboratory but it offers scientists the promise of expedited research objectives and less hands-on time than ever. In the fully integrated lab, the workstations and stand-alone devices are all connected via lab orchestration software to work just like a musical orchestra, creating a harmonious and beautiful interplay of devices. That beauty helps you to achieve things like running your lab 24/7, even when people aren’t around, doubling the typical research hours in a day.

Labs that are fully integrated are the type you see at large pharma and biotech companies. This is often because full automation takes investment—financially, but also from your team to learn what to do, how to do it, and how to adapt it as your research changes. You might want a team of automation engineers and a consulting integrator on the side. These labs scaling the heights of lab automation are doing it for a reason: faster research, faster discoveries.

Where does your lab fall on the spectrum? Where do you want it to be? If you’re in Manual or Stand-alone Automated territory it can be hard to make the jump to the next level without a partner integrator company to advise you or at least one automation engineer who’s done this before.

The process of getting started

If you want to begin the process of moving into a Semi-automated or Fully Automated state, start thinking about these critical topics:

  • It is important to define your team’s goals for automation. Some possible goals are increased staff productivity and efficiency or a need to scale to meet demand. Cool robotics and powerful tech are important, but they only will serve you well if you know what you want to get from them. Common goals that we hear from labs moving deeper into lab automation include:
    • Goal 1: Increased Throughput
      This goal goes something along the lines of increasing resources without increasing headcount or improving the efficiency of the existing team.
    • Goal 2: Perform Complex Tasks
      This goal is about taking things that are challenging for people to do well and turning them over to a reliable automation system to increase repeatability.
    • Goal 3: Reduce sample consumption and waste
      This goal is about being as efficient as possible and minimizing the waste that’s created in the lab. Goals might include reducing consumable usage or minimizing the volume of samples and reagents needed to run workflows.
  • Keep in mind that automation improves many lab processes, but it does not work for every scenario, nor can it solve every problem. If you can do it, it’s helpful to work with a company specializing in integrations, because they’ve seen common and uncommon scenarios before and can advise you on these challenges.
    • Not every workflow is easily adapted to automation and might require some creativity to find the automated process that can take care of it. The biggest culprit in this area is labware! Many types of labware were designed for human engagement, and they can’t be opened, closed, and accessed by automation solutions. You might have to find some thoughtful ways to change out the labware or move samples into automation-friendly tools.
    • Not every lab has the space to bring in equipment. If you don’t have much room or have to move frequently because you share a collaborative space, automation might be more trouble than it’s worth for the time being. Automation solutions can be heavy and difficult to move without extra tools, and they will take up space in a lab. An automation expert may help you to determine the best way to make use of your limited space.
  • Lab staff may have reservations about implementing automation due to negative experiences in the past or misunderstandings about the new system. The solution is to explain the purpose and benefits of the new system and how it can position scientists for success. Lab automation isn’t about replacing humans. It’s about freeing up scientist time from spending all day moving samples around the lab. This empowers scientists to spend time thinking about what they want to research, how to do it, and what all the data means.

    Plus, learning to be familiar with an automated system is almost like learning to drive! There are so many new tools, software programs, and ways of thinking that change management is a big deal. Most scientists didn’t have a class on automation engineering in school, and they need to be thoughtfully trained on how to get the most from the system they want to build.

With goals in place, begin thinking about the automation fundamentals

When we look over the wide landscape of automation options, there are 3 major elements to start thinking about when building a lab automation solution. These elements are your workflow details, hardware, and software.

Workflow Details

The first step to building any form of automation is to spend the time to map out your workflow. Make a detailed flow chart that shows where samples begin and in what labware. Include steps for where the samples move next, what person or tool is currently doing the movement, and what happens to the sample in the next step. Repeat this process until each step of your current workflow is mapped out.

Include details like these:

  • Storage locations
  • Labware used
  • Steps to reformat or change labware
  • Manual elements done by hand
  • Consumables needed to facilitate any step
  • The role of any devices or workstations you’re already using
  • When labware barcodes should be read
  • Sealing or lidding of labware

Once you have a clear picture of your activity, you can start thinking about hardware and software.

Hardware physically executes the automated tasks, while software makes all the hardware run together in concert. An orchestra makes a good comparison. Hardware is like the individual musicians in an orchestra playing cello, flute, and violin. The software is the conductor who keeps everyone in line and organized around the bigger picture to create a magical performance. If you go all in on hardware and think about the software last or never, what you experience will be disjointed and hard to connect.

Hardware and software must work together for you to move forward in harmony. With your workflow map in hand, you can start thinking about what hardware and software to bring in to enhance your existing process and build a strong automation solution.

Hardware

Hardware refers to all of the equipment required to make the laboratory automation system meet your workflow needs. The hardware takes up space in the lab and does the physical labor required to make the research happen. Hardware might include a liquid handler, a peeler, a sealer, plate hotels, robotic arms, mobile robots, or any other device that helps you meet your workflow requirements and speed up your research. It might even include cabinetry and carts to provide sterility or portability to your workstation and instrumentation. Choosing the equipment, the manufacturer, and the quantities are the foundational part of an integrated system.

Software

While the word “automation” typically brings to mind robotic arms, liquid handlers, and other hardware, no lab can be automated without high-quality scheduling or lab orchestration software to keep all systems running smoothly. Software refers to all of the programming required to make the hardware function, or one step higher, to connect in an integrated system so that all of the equipment works in harmony. While the software doesn’t take up space in the lab, it is the powerful driver that brings the machinery to life and executes the tasks. Most equipment has default software created by the manufacturer that you can leverage, but if you want to start unifying the hardware into a larger integrated system, you’ll need scheduling software that can communicate with all of the equipment you have.

Ideally, software tools capture and analyze all streams of data within the lab; the best can optimize routines on the fly, schedule multiple tasks on a single workflow, respond quickly to errors, and allow users to check in remotely.

Whether you’re an experienced engineer looking to upgrade your system or you’re embarking on the automation journey for the first time, the same basic principles apply. You’ll need to identify your automation requirements and then carefully consider how to convert all or parts of your workflow into streamlined automation by combining hardware and software.

Want to learn more?

We’ve got a few resources picked out for you.

Want to review these points in a webinar format?

Here’s a recent webinar where our Senior Applications Scientist Donald Chow discussed requirements for automation in general. This webinar has a little bit of talk about flow cytometry, but a whole lot of information about automation basics and where to get started.

Virtual or live tours of automated systems

Sometimes you just want to experience the thing before you buy it—like the test drive on a new car. Biosero Acceleration Labs provide you with the opportunity to test drive an automation concept before you actually bring it home. Virtual and in-person experience are available.

Get Biosero’s help launching automation for your lab

If you want help implementing automation in your lab, consider contacting an automation partner, like Biosero. We provide software and integration solutions to help labs achieve their workflow goals in lab automation. Reach out.