Automation 101: Building an Orchestrated Lab, Not Just an Automated Lab

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September 14, 2022  |  Technology

It seems like every lab has some kind of automation these days but tying that automation together into a smart system is what we dream about. We call that Lab Orchestration.

The goals of Lab Orchestration are straightforward

  • Plan, calendar, and execute workflows on devices across the lab
  • Transport samples in traffic-controlled harmony on any available transportation system
  • Weave in tracking for all the manual lab tasks, too
  • Allow for real-time monitoring of instrumentation across the entire lab
  • Collect all the workflow information into portals for data contextualization so productivity and historical trends become clear

Why the normal path to scaling lab automation makes it difficult to achieve Lab Orchestration

These Lab Orchestration goals sound so simple in the context of consumer tools that already try to aggregate data, like Google Home does for devices in the household. But in the lab, it’s not that simple.

Most frequently, the lab automation progression goes like this.

  1. The lab gets a liquid handler. They select their vendor and buy one or a few workstations to handle the liquid transfer needs of their workflow.
  2. The liquid handler software drives the programming for the workstation. The liquid handler vendor maybe even sells them a system with bells and whistles beyond the basic model that allows for greater walkaway time. Their final design integrates consumable storage or other devices with the liquid handler, and all the activity is managed with software designed to control liquid transfer steps.
  3. Any new devices or extensions of functionality need to be compatible with liquid handler software. Any time a new device needs to be added or swapped out, the liquid handler software needs to be adapted to accommodate the new functionality and command requirements.
  4. The liquid handler’s software drives awesome pipetting, but can control integrations in unexpected ways. When the lab wants to add a new workstation to the other side of the lab a year later, they encounter some surprises.
    1. New vendor? New software. If the new liquid handler is from a new vendor, the lab has to learn everything over again with a new software package to drive that workstation. And that means the team is committed to onboarding a new vendor, with more training and more programming nuances to remember and keep straight.
    2. Multiple workstation complexity. Whether the lab gets the same type of liquid handler or a new one, there’s going to be a big puzzle if they actually want these two workstations to handle different pieces of a single workflow. The first liquid handler’s software doesn’t extend to the second workstation without a lot of effort. The idea of connecting the two workstations with new transport options like a mobile robot quickly pushes the system into highly complex integrations territory that come with a big integrations price tag. Combining multiple workstations is still in the territory of complex projects when working with a liquid handling vendor.
    3. No way to control and track steps that don’t involve a liquid handler. The lab still has some workflow steps that are done manually, and there are a few automated devices that aren’t connected to a liquid handler. There’s no way to track these tasks and bring them into the same data set as all the automated tasks that run through the liquid handler.

So, when the lab wants another workstation, they either take the plunge to build out the expensive new cross-lab integration or they just let human scientists become the glue, ferrying samples between the workstations that are essentially islands.

With this approach, the liquid handler is the central point that the workflow pivots around. The liquid handler’s software is responsible for integrations, scheduling, and timing, and if you want to do something outside of what’s presented, you can’t or you go custom. The power of the liquid handler’s software has been in driving accurate and precise transfers day in and out—most of the time on the deck of the liquid handler itself.

Why do we keep expecting pipetting software to orchestrate the lab? It’s time to leave the pipetting to the experts, and think about a different model for orchestrating the lab.

Approaching the lab with the Lab Orchestration mindset starts as early in planning as possible

To get to Lab Orchestration, you need to take a step back to see the lab differently from the classic automation approach.

The classic approach is for the lab to program everything into the liquid handler, which in turn will trigger activities on the family of integrated devices.

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In the Lab Orchestration approach, you bring in a new layer that is specifically designed to manage the lab, including the liquid handler.

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This model makes it easy to pick up all the devices in several clusters and control them separately from the same portal, prioritizing the scientific needs over the liquid handling operations.

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It also makes it possible to connect to transportation systems that can join workstations all managed at the lab level, instead of at the individual workstation level. For example, transportation options like mobile robots can move freely on the same paths that their human scientists traverse to join workstations together. It takes lab orchestration tools to facilitate both workstations and the mobile robot that bridges them.

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Once all the workflow data is flowing into the Lab Orchestration Portal, the integration possibilities really open up, offering potential to integrate with LIMS, environmental monitoring, ELN, and manual processes. Again, all activity is then organized, monitored, and stored from a central portal that is designed to be a controlling layer for the laboratory.

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So many other parts of the laboratory process have been improved by strides in software, like Titian Mosaic for inventory management and Genedata Screener for data management, but automation tools that execute physical science also need reinvention.

It’s the Lab Orchestration mindset that allows you to reach new heights in lab automation.

  • Track productivity data that you can learn from and simulate to improve outcomes and reduce bottlenecks—not just for one liquid handler, but across your entire lab
  • Gain true walkaway time by bringing together clusters of instruments in a portal that is designed for integrations
  • Gain flexibility to swap in lab devices and components as needed without breaking down your entire system
  • Push into the possibilities for 24/7 lab automation, even when humans aren’t present, by relying on systems and monitoring tools that connect at the highest levels and organize the activity

Want to learn more about Lab Orchestration?

  • Follow us on LinkedIn. We’re talking about this topic and other lab automation ideas every day.
  • Check out Green Button Go Orchestrator. The Lab Orchestration concepts we describe above are our design philosophy as a team of software developers and automation engineers trying to do lab auto better. We practice what we preach.