Navigating cultural shifts in laboratory automation

July 21, 2021  |  Trends

Accomplishing cultural change on a large scale can be challenging because people are generally set in their ways. This is equally true in the field of laboratory automation. When introducing automation into a group, how can it be done in a way to encourage acceptance and overcome fears of job loss?

Over the years, there has been a pendulum swing in the architecture of lab automation systems. The community has moved from building large monolithic systems to smaller, distributed, connected systems that are more accessible. A persistent challenge for companies is getting their employees to use and embrace the system throughout these shifts.

At Biosero, we have seen companies spend millions of dollars upgrading their infrastructure and installing systems that are never used. Part of the challenge is that the push to purchase automation solutions is typically driven by engineers trying to solve scientific, mechanical, or software problems. But without thinking critically about how to overcome the problem of adoption and cultural change internally, these systems may not gain much traction.

So what can companies do to overcome fears about change and ensure that these systems are integrated into daily operations? A few things are essential. Companies need internal champions who are willing to talk about the value of the automated system and the benefits to the work processes with their colleagues. It is also helpful to demonstrate that the ability to use automation can exponentially increase the value employees bring to their companies, laboratories, and projects.

Lab automation can enable scientists to be more productive by allowing them to accomplish more within their day. Automating routine tasks and end-to-end processes within the lab would allow scientists to move from being task-oriented to goal-oriented. Scientists can leverage automation to accomplish tasks that require minimal human input, freeing them up to focus on vital functions where automation can not help. For example, you might use the time to analyze the large amounts of data generated in your lab or design your next experiment. Spend that critical time preparing that project stakeholders presentation or participating in the next portfolio ideation session. Or enjoy a lunch meeting with a colleague without worrying about your samples and workflows.

Automation extends scientists’ productivity hours by giving them the ability to run assays and experiments unattended overnight and on weekends. In addition to the physical automation workflows, much of a scientists’ time and effort can be spent managing and manipulating raw data and results into macros and spreadsheets. This digital data capture and curation can also be part of your automated solution, saving significant amounts of a researcher’s time.

An internal champion is critical to laboratory automation adoption. Automation champions must be willing to take the time to understand the system and can help build trust in it throughout the lab and organization. Building a collaborative relationship with vendors benefits both organizations and promotes innovation in the industry.

Another option for lowering the barrier to automation is to reframe the conversation. When we come across customers who are new to automation, hesitant to adopt a different system, or who feel burned by previously failed attempts at automation, we try to understand where they are coming from and build a solution that addresses their specific needs. Our approach is first to identify their end goals and then work backward. We take a holistic look at their projects, what resources they have available and then demonstrate how automation can fill those gaps. It’s not a focus on a specific solution. Instead, we focus on what success looks like for the customer and reverse-engineer a solution that works for them. For us, success is when our customers use a new system to achieve something great — not when it sits idly gathering dust.

Increasingly, laboratories recognize that they need to automate to keep up with the rapid pace of scientific development. They also see the value of automation for their projects in terms of increased productivity, flexibility, and versatility. Most systems are built to run particular assays or hit a specific target. But we know that priorities can sometimes change. That’s why we help researchers design systems that are flexible and can be repurposed as workflows and processes change.

Because Biosero understands that being on the cutting-edge of science requires constant adaptation, we design process-centric software for scientists. Lab automation solutions must be geared for use by scientists and easily adapt as quickly as your experimentation does. Unfortunately, this has not been the case historically. Many lab automation solutions developed in the past were hardware-centric and designed with engineers in mind, meaning the solutions were built around the instrumentation hardware’s capabilities and constraints instead of application requirements. For this reason, lab automation has been complex, rigid, restricted, intimidating to use, expensive, and time-consuming to modify when needed. Biosero has developed truly hardware-agnostic software that provides a process-centric solution, creating an extremely flexible and easy-to-use system that can evolve and grow over time as your scientific needs do. As new instrumentation and next-generation technologies arise, our solutions provide a seamless and straightforward way to add those capabilities to your automated solution.

Designing laboratory automation strategically requires a lot of engagement and planning, as well as a collaborative relationship with internal champions. But taking these considerations into account at the beginning of a project will provide long-term benefits like improved productivity and accelerated scientific discoveries, proving that these projects are worth the investment.

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