Gone are the days when scientists’ only options for lab equipment were large, stationary platforms with a limited set of capabilities. Today, many equipment vendors sell modular, nimble automated solutions that let scientists work flexibly and arrange their labs in different ways.
We think this trend toward flexible automation will continue in the future and that it’s the right direction for their field. In a recent article published in Labcompare, Ryan Bernhardt, our Chief Commercial Officer, discussed some of the reasons why this shift in lab automation occurred and shared some examples of how these systems are reshaping research.
“With new techniques and technology routinely changing laboratory workflows, flexibility has quickly become a priority for automated lab operations throughout the drug discovery pipeline,” he notes. “These nimbler approaches to automation are also making it possible to increase instrument utilization and eliminate redundant setups across lab facilities, helping pharmaceutical and biotech companies spend less on equipment and get more out of it.”
Historically, automation technologies evolved with scientists’ needs and that trend continues today. One factor driving demand for more flexible automation systems that was highlighted in the article are changes in the types of workflows driven by next-generation sequencing and other developments.
In the past, high-throughput screening experiments that involved running the same few steps on a large number of samples were the norm. Now, a lot of experiments involve running many discrete processes on fewer samples. That’s hard to do on large, static lab systems designed to support a single workflow. Flexible solutions allow scientists to get the most out of their systems. Furthermore, they can take advantage of newer techniques and technologies that can be installed in days rather than weeks or months.
Mobile robots are one example of a technology that offers scientists a new level of flexibility that was not previously possible. Their ability to navigate and move independently around people and workstations makes them very useful in facilities with devices and workstations in different locations.
“A relative newcomer to the laboratory automation space, the mobile robot is adding a level of agility and flexibility that had never been possible before,” Bernhardt writes. “These sensor-laden robots can move independently around laboratories or even across a campus, navigating carefully around buildings, people, instruments, and other obstacles as they go. They can be used to perform a wide variety of simple tasks, such as carrying samples, reagents, and consumables along designated routes to the instruments that need them.”
Scientists have only begun to tap the potential of mobile robots. In the article, Bernhardt describes how some scientists use mobile robots to build self-assembling workstations. These are unique systems that are assembled to accomplish particular tasks or workflows. Once the job is complete, they break apart or transform into something different. Functionality like this is fantastic for drug discovery labs that frequently have to change their workflows.
Flexible systems can also mean the difference between hitting project goals or missing them. It’s no secret that discovering new drugs requires a lot of risk and takes years of study and experimentation. Solutions that shorten that time frame, maximize scientists’ time in the lab, and reduce the risk of errors are important assets. As an example, Bernhardt highlighted how scientists at AstraZeneca used a fleet of mobile robots to create a centralized lab that increased staff productivity and efficiency.