Thinking about a career in lab automation? Read this first

October 5, 2022  |  Trends

In the past few decades, automation has become indispensable to life science research labs. But most scientists only learn about it once they’re working in a laboratory. Lab automation is so much more than a tool — for many of us, it’s an exciting and rewarding career.

Not sure what we mean by lab automation? Check out this blog post that introduces the topic for the beginner.

Benefits of working in companies that use or build lab automation

Salaries and benefits in the laboratory automation field are quite good, especially since there is a lot of competition among companies to fill jobs right now. Demand for skilled individuals who can support these roles has only increased as automation becomes a larger part of the research process.

But for many of us, the real reward is being able to go each day to a job we’re passionate about. Roles in the lab automation space provide challenging and rewarding work, and it’s easy to see the value. When you support or build a robotic solution that helps find cures for cancer, diagnosis a disease, or discover new vaccines, you know you’re doing good things for the world.

Roles related to lab automation

There are a ton of different roles available in lab automation, from engineers who design the systems, to technicians who actually build systems, to scientists who automate the science, to business professionals who support the business. Here are some quick profiles of different roles in lab automation.

Automation Engineer

  • Description: Designs, builds, and programs automation solutions that are deployed in labs. The most important quality is your ability to adapt and keep learning, because the space of laboratory automation is constantly changing, just like the research that’s being conducted. You need to learn new things and teach them to others on a day-to-day basis.
  • Background: There isn’t currently a degree program to mint you as a brand-new automation engineer, but people come to the job through many backgrounds, like engineering, computer science, robotics, or biology. You might work in a lab to gain experience with lab automation solutions before transitioning into the role full-time.

Product Manager

  • Description: Leads the way in discovery and innovation at companies that develop lab automation solutions. With a vision for how lab automation can be impacted by new hardware or software developments, the Product Manager sets the plan for where the tools need to be developed and leads the team of engineers and wider organization into the future.
  • Background: Much like the Automation Engineer, the background for successful PMs in the lab automation industry varies. You can come up through software engineering, hardware engineering, life sciences, or even as an automation engineer. This role is the intersection of science, technology, and business and takes a multi-faceted and customer-driven visionary to pull off.

Software Engineer

  • Description: Programs software that allows lab automation hardware tools to achieve their goals, either solo or as part of a concert of activity. Software engineering in the laboratory automation space can be focused on individual devices and workstations, or it can apply to lab scheduling and orchestration solutions that are geared toward making all those individual devices work together as a team.
  • Background: A bachelor’s degree in Computer Science makes a good foundation, but experience with life science space is also useful to help you understand the ultimate needs and goals of the users in the lab.

Applications Scientist

  • Description: Works to deeply understand the lab’s workflow and then designs efficient automated solutions to meet the need. As part of an automation organization, the Applications Scientist needs to be an individual with a strong scientific background who also speaks the language of automation. Instead of performing the scientific research yourself, you’re using your training to help design the right automated solutions for labs across a wide range of applications.
  • Background: A bachelor’s degree in Life Science, Molecular and Cell Biology, Biochemistry or related fields is useful, plus some time spent on the bench with hands-on experience. If you have an advanced degree, that can be helpful, but it’s not required.

Service Engineer

  • Description: Builds, repairs, and maintains the performance of automation hardware. These roles require physical knowledge of a range of hardware, so they need to be skilled mechanics, but they also talk to customers on a regular basis. This blend of hardware expertise and customer relations is critical to success.
  • Background: Service Engineers are generally people who like to work with their hands and have an unending curiosity to learn new technologies. No specific degree is necessary to be successful.

While “lab automation” usually conjures up images of robots and conveyor belts, there are plenty of non-technical roles in the field as well.

Lab automation companies require people who specialize in selling, marketing, and making the business run, like territory managers, marketers, customer service reps, project managers, and human resources partners. These roles don’t have to work daily with the robotic solutions themselves, but familiarity with the goals and customers in the lab automation space can only help enrich the work you do.

Companies in the lab automation space

You can approach lab automation from a number of angles. Here’s a quick rundown of major company types in the industry that can help you with a job hunt.

Interested in working for vendors who create lab automation hardware? There are 50+ manufacturers providing hardware in this space alone, so don’t stop with this list if you’re really interested. This group of companies is focused on building technology that makes the scientist’s job easier. From liquid handlers, to peelers, sealers, centrifuges, and more—these technology products optimize the day-to-day science and help speed up research.

Interested in companies that work on software solutions for the laboratory? Software is a critical tool for the lab to help allow different devices to work together or just extend laboratory functions into the cloud and store all the data that’s generated. Software solutions like LIMS and ELN are frequently part of the day-to-day experience of working in a lab.

Interested in companies that design and build custom integrations? These companies consult for laboratories to design, build, and support custom automated solutions. If you work at this kind of company, you’ll probably be encountering many different types of science and many different types of manufacturers in the industry, gaining experience broadly across lab automation. Projects and applications are likely to be varied.

Interested in working on the scientific mission of a particular life sciences company? Lab automation plays a role in almost every biotech company out there. From large pharmaceutical companies to startups exploring therapeutic techniques, automation-related roles are frequently available. For example, a biopharma company is likely to have an automation engineering team that plans and directs the automation for one or many labs within their organization.

Want to learn more about lab automation?

If you’re interested in learning more about careers in lab automation, a great place to start is the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS). This community group focused on automation offers job postings and other career resources. Plus, the SLAS annual meeting is a great way to meet people in the lab automation field.

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