A big theme we’ve been hearing from research labs is a desire to run a lab 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Oftentimes, these labs have done a ton of hard work to choose key devices and equipment that scientists run throughout daytime hours, but that equipment is idle in the evening. The question becomes: how can I run my lab at all hours of the day to make the most of the equipment I’ve assembled?
In this blog post, we’re tackling what we know about 24/7 automation, what’s challenging about it, and what we’re looking at as an integrator to support here.
What’s the value of running my lab day and night?
It’s clear to anyone working in a professional research lab that scientists are under pressure to increase the productivity of their labs. Instrumentation like liquid handlers and robotics is already a major step forward and a significant investment for labs to accelerate research. By offloading repetitive tasks that benefit from standardization, scientists are freed up to do more valuable work.
But if the instrumentation you’ve invested in is only running for (the standard) 8 hours a day, 5 days a week when scientists are in the building, it means there’s a significant opportunity for your team to double production hours. 128 of the 168 hours in a week are essentially “dark” hours where no human would be providing input, but with some prep work, those hours can be leveraged.
Ten years ago, lab automation was hooking devices together into a complex, custom-integrated system. The new frontier for lab automation is taking that system to the max by driving research efforts even when human counterparts are at rest.
To sum it up, these are the benefits we are striving for when we talk about 24/7 lab productivity:
- Maximize usage of instrumentation throughout the entire week, instead of only when people are in the lab
- Drive forward research during underutilized hours of the day to shorten overall research timelines
Why isn’t everyone doing this if it’s so valuable?
The fact is that integrating diverse instruments and equipment in the lab is still hard. Many devices developed for the sciences still target a standalone use case or low-throughput automation vision. It’s even challenging to figure out how to load and re-load consumables if the workstation isn’t designed to do it mid-run and a human isn’t there to help. Or just consider a situation where you’re bringing together devices from 10 different vendors, each with their own software — how do you get them to talk to each other?
To reach the goal of running automation throughout the day requires thinking about the connectivity between systems and an automation team that’s finding ways to bridge the gaps between standalone instrumentation. Not every team has the time and drive to go there yet, but the opportunity remains. It would also be powerful for industry manufacturers and inventors to think about where and how their products fit into a fully automated system to truly give scientists hands-off time.
What can I do now to my existing automation setup to be able to run my lab day and night?
The solution for existing labs trying to adopt the 24/7 automation mentality is to start using flexible automation practices and infrastructure that allow for runs without human oversight.
Let’s break it down:
- To get started, think about two key new forms of robotics that offer more flexible types of transportation for lab samples and consumables. Until the last few years, if you wanted to transport samples between standalone stations, you needed to put devices near one another with a bolted-down robotic arm between them, or you needed to leverage conveyor belts and tracks. New innovations in lab transportation can support you with just a few updates for your lab—and a great WiFi signal.
- Mobile robots are practically like lab droids, able to work through scheduling software to navigate your lab, keep humans safe, and properly deliver materials to any device you specify. If you’re not familiar with them, learn more about mobile robots in our intro post.
- Dockless carts are similar to mobile robots, because they use vision-guided systems to navigate a lab, but they offer all the benefits of the standard lab cart—featuring lots of room, the ability to transport multiple plates at once, and the ability to even hold instruments and workstations. If you’re not familiar with them, learn more about dockless carts here.
- Next, think about the location and accessibility of instruments, integrated workstations, and other standalone stations around your lab. Enabling 24/7 automation doesn’t mean you need to abandon equipment that you’ve already invested in. You may just need to reconsider where these stations are placed in the lab and how a mobile robot might be able to approach a standalone station, pick up a sample plate, and deliver it to another station. Is there a clear path? Will robot traffic conflict with foot traffic? Is there enough room for a robot to fit?
- Then consider what tool is collecting your data and acting as your air traffic controller for all of this activity. At Biosero, we’ve developed Green Button Go Orchestrator for this very reason. It’s a software suite that can manage every device in the lab, help navigate the robots, and take orders for the next day and night’s work all from the same productivity portal. Plus, it can give you lab analytics instantly, data that would take too long to gather manually, and pack them into one report, including utilization rate, downtime, bottlenecks, and other key measures that help you understand exactly what is going on in your lab—day or night.
The automation ideal for this type of system looks like this:
- During off-work hours, mobile robots can keep experiments going or launch new ones by seamlessly moving samples, tubes, and plates between workstations in the same or even different labs.
- Green Button Go can orchestrate the movement of physical materials while capturing high-quality, complex digital information about experiments at every step in the process.
- During the day, scientists can choose to give their mobile robots a break and operate the equipment themselves.
I want to start planning a new lab layout from scratch. What can I do to make sure it’s going to run 24/7?
The first step is to understand what your lab is trying to accomplish at a high level. Different automation solutions tailor well for specific goals.
For a production lab that is going to be developing the same or similar formulas every day of the year
- We recommend building a dedicated lab setup with more “railroad” style transportation methods. For automation that is relatively unchanging, bolted-down systems that involve conveyor belts or track-based transport can help you improve speed and overall delivery. A mobile robot that is tasked with delivering a plate between two labs in a single building will have to navigate obstacles, open doors, and more while transporting materials at a safe pace. In contrast, a conveyor belt or track is a lot more like a railroad—able to quickly carry a significant amount of material to a very specific location, again and again.
- To manage all the activities, Green Button Go Orchestrator is still our top pick. All of the powerful features to design, schedule, execute, and report are still possible because transportation solutions are considered flexible to Green Button Go. Planning works just as smoothly if you’re leveraging a mobile robot or a track-based delivery system.
For a research lab that is going to be changing projects on a regular basis
- We recommend thinking about mobile robots and dockless carts from the very beginning of the planning process. Build stations that make sense for your team now and in the future, and use the versatility of these newer transportation methods to help you bridge the gap as research changes.
For a lab that is looking for scale and flexibility
- Let’s talk! If you can help us understand what your needs are now and in the future, we can bring our automation expertise to the table, and together, we can find the hardware, software, and long-term plan to hit your goals.
Want more on 24/7 automation?
One of our favorite resources on 24/7 automation comes from Andrew Smith, who works at AstraZeneca. At SLAS 2022, he gave a detailed presentation with concrete examples of how the AstraZeneca Robotics and Automation Development team is achieving its automation goals at different times of the day. If you’re looking for a resource that’s in the industry and thinking about this topic, check out his talk here:
“Building Integrated Walk Up and Lights Out Solutions”
Andrew Smith, Robotics and Automation Development, AstraZeneca
Virtual or live tour of 24/7 automation solutions + Green Button Go
If you want to see Green Button Go supporting 24/7 productivity, consider taking an Acceleration Lab tour, virtually or live in San Diego, California. The Acceleration Lab is a fully equipped lab environment with a range of instrumentation and software solutions—all powered by Green Button Go Orchestrator. We’ll show you exactly how we bring the lab to life for all-hours productivity, monitoring, and lab analytics.
Get Biosero’s help launching 24/7 automation in your lab
If you want help launching a 24/7 integrated solution 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, and we’re already working with clients to push the boundaries of lab productivity. Reach out.