Staff shortages and increasing sample volume are the factors typically driving laboratories to assess their current workflows in order to improve performance and efficiency. Automated sample preparation and standardization help reduce laboratory errors and costs by automating repetitive, error-prone, and bio-hazardous processes. Beside that automation improves the accuracy of laboratory workflows by reducing human errors. Errors including mis-labeled tubes, inadequate volume, incorrect tube type can all be identified and flagged as incorrect prior to analysis, reducing the chance of reporting incorrect results. Planning is critical. You need to carefully consider a number of factors, for successful implementation of automation.
First you need to determine what you want to achieve by investing in automation? Examine every step in your workflow. All steps within a laboratory workflow can be automated: receipt of samples, sample processing, data analysis, and sample storage. However, complete automation is not needed in every lab. What degree of automation will work best for your needs? Are there steps or procedures in your workflow that will remain manual steps? For example, do you want to automate the receipt and processing of samples as soon as they enter your lab or are you automating a single step in the process, for example library preparation?
How many samples do you need to process per day? Do you anticipate this volume changing in the future? How will additional capacity be added in the future if needed? Can additional capacity be added without the time and expense of revalidating workflows? How many hours per day do you anticipate running now and in the future? Do you need automation that can run unattended? If so, how long can the system run unattended, without operator interaction?
Space constraints also need to be considered. Depending on the number of steps being automated and the design of the instrumentation, the instrument’s footprint can range from less than a square foot to an entire room.
Does your workflow require special handling of samples? For example, will you require pre- and post-PCR separation? Do your samples to be processed in a controlled environment?
Do you expect requested automation solution to fall under regulatory control (21CFR11, IVD, FDA)?
The shortage of qualified laboratory professionals has been straining laboratories for years, but this was accelerated by COVID-19. Automation helps alleviate the labor shortage enabling labs to deliver high quality results even with fewer, less experienced people.
Another factor to consider is your available budget. Labs with capital expenditure constraints can consider reagent rental options from companies which offer both automation and assays.
What are your delivery expectations? How soon after delivery will you need your system operational? The solution that meets your specific needs is typically better than the solution that is fastest to implement. After delivery, automation typically involves set-up and optimization to meet your specific workflow needs.
Are tips and other required consumables in stock for the automation solutions you are considering? Plasticware shortages, which are still common, can become a bottleneck in your workflow.
With proper planning, automation increases consistency, efficiency, and reliability improving key performance indicators due to process standardization.