Lab Automation Has a Standardization Problem

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January 11, 2023  |  Trends

In lab automation, establishing generally accepted standards will prevent fragmentation and simplify the process of integrating software, instruments, and devices in the lab. Unfortunately, standards development has taken a backseat to other priorities in the field. At Biosero, we think it’s time to change that.

Today’s lab automation solutions provide sophisticated capabilities that might have seemed like science fiction just a few decades ago. Scientists can launch and track complex, multistep workflows, and direct robots to complete tasks from a single interface. But even with all those advancements, scientists still have inefficiencies in their workflows that can be traced back to interoperability problems. Many of those issues could be solved by developing standards for lab automation.

A successful case of automation standardization

The microtiter plate is an example of a community-motivated effort to develop standards. Decades ago, as automation expanded in laboratories, inconsistent sizing of microtiter plates was a major stumbling block in the design of robots needed to move them around. Members of the Society for Biomolecular Screening (SBS) came together in the late ’90s to define standard microtiter plate dimensions.

That single standard empowered scientists and the lab automation community. Many of today’s massive automation installations are built around robots and workflows that exist because the field has a reliable, consistently sized microtiter plate footprint. When updating their systems, most instrument developers prioritize things like lowering costs, improving throughput, and boosting accuracy. Establishing field-wide standards can help equipment vendors accomplish those goals, but to date, very little effort has been put toward that task.

A lack of further standards has ramifications on all sides

Without standards, the instruments, software, and other components needed for automated labs are not as interoperable as they should be, and that makes it harder for scientists to use them effectively. Purchasing equipment from a single vendor can be a way to get around this issue in the short term, but that limits scientists’ options to just a handful of providers. If all vendors used the same standards, customers would have a broader choice of lab instruments and devices.

Automation engineers’ jobs are also harder without standard parts. At Biosero, our engineers spend a lot of time at client sites going over their hardware and software needs and the challenges they want to overcome. When we create an implementation plan, we have to pay special attention to the interoperability of existing equipment with new automated lab instrumentation. If there were widely accepted standards to promote the development of interoperable devices, the installation process would be shorter and faster, letting customers get back to their science sooner.

The challenge with further automation standardization

Establishing standards for lab automation has to be a community effort, with input from two large groups of stakeholders. The first and most obvious are instrument developers and manufacturers who have valuable knowledge about their equipment’s design and structure. Understanding the needs of automation can change the way they design their instruments. Adjusting basic concepts — such as the position of a service panel so it doesn’t interfere with a mobile robot’s access to load samples and reagents, for example — can ensure long-term success and optimal utility for automated and manual workflows.

The second group that needs to be part of the standards conversation is customers, particularly big pharma and biotech companies. If these customers begin to insist on standardization, manufacturers will have to pay attention. Automation standards will ultimately benefit all labs, so it would be smart for high-profile customers to consider how they can band together and wield their power to help drive the conversation forward.

Areas in lab automation worth standardizing

Community standards take a long time to define and implement, but the benefits make the investment worth it. At Biosero, we are a member of Standardization in Lab Automation (SiLA), a nonprofit consortium that develops standards for exchanging, integrating, sharing, and retrieving data in the lab. SiLA standards have been implemented in labs at many large and small organizations around the world. Where they are used, scientists have been able to reduce development costs, project time, and risks so they can spend more time planning and designing experiments.

The big step forward that SiLA has taken can be followed by several other standardization paths.

  • How to design hardware so that it can best work together with robotics
  • How to design hardware for 24/7 runtimes that can take input from people but can also run on its own
  • How to design software and drivers to plug and play in a wide network of tools
  • How to build software with APIs that connect in a friendly way to other software in the lab

If you have ideas about how to encourage new standards in lab automation or are aware of any other initiatives on this front, we would love to hear from you.

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