Laboratory Automation: A How-To Guide

Since the late ’90s, the number of accredited training programs for laboratory technologists and technicians has seen a drastic decline, reducing the number of qualified laboratory professionals entering the field each year. With more retirements than graduations and the number of available and qualified lab technicians dwindling, laboratories across the country have been forced to find new solutions.

While graduation rates have increased slightly over the last decade, the workforce is still insufficient to properly staff the growing number of testing facilities and laboratories around the country. 

With the workforce shrinking, the workload growing, and restrictions on laboratories tightening, facilities have been forced to find a solution, and quickly. As an answer to the overwhelming workload, manufacturers have begun to roll out automation solutions to help laboratory facilities manage essential tasks that otherwise would be performed by lab personnel.

Though fully automated laboratories are a few years away, more facilities than ever before are now embracing new technologies that enable faster, more efficient testing, research, and development. 

The Benefits of Lab Automation

Though some industry professionals have voiced concerns over the potential for laboratory automation to make human lab technicians irrelevant, the majority of industry stakeholders have reacted positively to this advancement in technology. These innovations have come at the perfect time, presenting a possible solution for an overtaxed industry whose workload will only continue to grow over the next few decades. 

Laboratories play a vital role in the healthcare industry, providing important research, testing, and discoveries pertaining to infectious diseases, new treatment options, and the general health of the U.S. public. Clinical laboratories, in particular, are seeing an increased strain on personnel, unable to efficiently process the vast number of samples being sent to their facilities daily.

From pathology and sample analysis lab to pharmaceutical testing and manufacturing facilities, these labs play an increasingly important role in the worlds of public health, consumer products manufacturing, and material processing

As the numbers of qualified laboratory technicians have begun to dwindle, many facility managers and staffers have been forced to hire underqualified technicians to take their place. With less experience and fewer accredited programs to provide vital education, these underqualified technicians (while usually well-intentioned) may put other lab personnel and patients at risk with their lack of skill and experience.

Lack of experience may result in improper testing procedures, cross-contamination, misdiagnosis, and other potentially life-threatening mistakes.

Significantly, an influx of automated laboratory techniques and technologies could help to improve laboratory testing consistency and accuracy. More conditions than ever before are now testable, allowing patients to take a closer and more in-depth look at their health than ever before.

Medical lab automation is allowing these facilities to more quickly and efficiently process samples, providing patients with better outcomes and faster answers to their health-related questions. Laboratory automation is also improving the accuracy and consistency of sample testing, reducing misdiagnoses and improving patient safety. 

While automated systems are improving results and positive outcomes for patients, automation in laboratory settings is also helping to improve working conditions for laboratory technicians. Technicians working in labs that have implemented automated systems are required to do fewer mundane and repetitive tasks, and instead are able to focus the most important aspects of their work.

Automation can mean increased personnel work satisfaction and improved efficiency as a result. 

Tasks That Can Be Automated

While automated technologies are helping to improve the overall efficiency and accuracy of laboratory practices, laboratory automation is also helping to reduce human error by taking over repetitive tasks, leaving lab technicians free to focus on more important tasks like analyzing data and results.

While automation in some form or another has been around for more than a century, recent advancements are enabling labs to automate more advanced processes than ever before. Here are just a few examples of laboratory tasks than can be automated:

Repetitive Tasks

Generally, the tasks that are most often automated are those that are most repetitive. Repetitive tasks, like liquid handling, sample labeling, and organization of samples can become tedious, which can easily cause human technicians to make simple and easily avoidable mistakes out of boredom or a lack of focus. Automation of repetitive tasks can ensure across the board consistency, and reduce the incidence of human error within the facility. 

Sample Labeling

Sample labeling is one of those tedious tasks that, while important, can take up an extraordinary amount of employee time. The careful and accurate labeling of hundreds or thousands of samples can take hours, keeping lab technicians from more important work.

Automated labeling machinery can completely eliminate the need for manual labeling, and can far more quickly apply bar codes and detailed sample labels than human technicians. Automated sample labeling also helps to reduce human error, ensuring samples are given accurate labels to ensure accurate testing and results. 

Soon, automated labeling will be paired with automated tracking of sample locations and phases, using QR and barcodes to follow the path of a given sample throughout the facility and full testing process. Proper labeling of samples can also help to track their whereabouts post-testing and analysis, helping to locate samples thorough every phase of transportation and storage. 

Sample Analysis

Programmable robotic equipment can be taught to analyze samples and test results to identify certain diseases, disorders, genetic markers, etc. While the keen eye of a trained laboratory technician is needed for more complex diagnostics, automated testing and sample analysis can identify common and well-researched conditions and deliver accurate test results to improve the efficiency of regular diagnostic testing. 

Decapping and Recapping

Sample tube caps can be difficult or tedious to remove, especially when a large tray of tubes is scheduled for testing and analysis. Decapping machines can quickly and safely remove sample tube caps from test tubes of virtually every size and type, reducing the time it takes to set up samples for testing and reducing the chance of spills during the process. Once the necessary procedures are complete, these machines can also recap tubes for safe storage. 

Liquid Handling

Liquid handling and the careful measurement of liquid samples is an extremely precise process, often requiring technicians to spend extensive amounts of time carefully measuring and organizing samples before testing even begins. Like with other repetitive tasks, automated machinery can be taught to carefully measure liquid samples, taking over the tedious process of depositing sample materials into tubes for further analysis. 

Retrieval and Return of Samples

Conveyor systems, robotic arms, and other automated systems can be used for the rapid retrieval and return of samples to and from standard or refrigerated storage. Without automation, lab personnel has been forced to manually locate samples, a job that poses increasing challenges as the number of samples being sent to laboratories continues to increase, and the numbers of qualified personnel continue to decrease. Automated retrieval and return systems can quickly locate individual samples, helping to improve workplace productivity and efficiency. 

Choosing What to Automate and Important Considerations

Despite the rapid increase in the popularity of automated laboratory systems, these solutions remain relatively expensive, requiring lab managers to pick and choose where they will implement automation within their facilities. Though some managers may already have a clear vision of the areas of their facility that may require additional automated assistance, those just adding automation to their facilities will need to carefully analyze their unique needs. 

Budget

When selecting automation technologies, it is important to consider your facility’s budget. Though you may be tempted to automate every tedious task performed in your laboratory, careful consideration should be given to the actual cost of purchasing these pieces of equipment relative to the benefits they provide. Choosing processes to automate requires you to determine which tasks are done most frequently, so as to automate those tasks that are the most time consuming or costly when done manually. 

Flexibility

Though some facilities may perform only one type of work throughout the duration of their operation, the majority of laboratory facilities regularly transition between projects, requiring their facilities to be designed with flexibility in mind. Similarly, all automated technologies used in the facility should also be designed with flexibility in mind so as to be useful to researchers regardless of the nature of their work. 

Other Ways to Improve Laboratory Efficiency

At OnePointe Solutions, our focus is on providing high-quality solutions for our clients’ toughest design challenges. Creating an efficient workflow within the laboratory environment requires careful planning and consideration of every element of the facility, and requires the careful selection of appropriate equipment, materials, and furniture. Furniture designed, built, and installed by OnePointe Solutions is custom crafted to suit the unique needs of your facility.

We offer a huge range of laboratory furniture to help you create a functional, comfortable, and safe lab environment. 

Flexible Furniture

With laboratories regularly switching from one research method to another, and from project to project, facility flexibility is of the utmost importance. The ability to transition between tasks is essential to ensuring time, money, and personnel time are not wasted, and to ensuring necessary testing and research is performed in a timely manner.

At OnePointe Solutions, we offer a huge range of lab furniture featuring flexible design and tons of optional add-ons and accessories to create a unique solution tailor-made for your facility. 

We can furnish every area of your facility and offer a huge range of furniture options from workstations and lab tables to lab seating, storage, and laboratory casework. Here are just a few of the workstation configurations available from OnePointe Solutions: 

Our workbenches (and other furniture options) can also come with a variety of optional accessories to improve the performance and efficiency of your workbenches:

  • LCD monitor arms and computer mounts
  • Mounted casework
  • Cooling devices
  • Sound dampening enclosures
  • Modular shelving
  • Mounted plug strips
  • Steel and particle board pegboards
  • Casters
  • Footrests and ergonomic features
  • Edge rails

Durable Surface Materials

Cleaning and proper facility sanitation can take hours each and every day, especially if the facility was not initially designed for easy cleaning and maintenance. Sanitizing work surfaces can take up valuable testing and research time, or completely halt operations if not done properly. Hard to clean surfaces make the task especially difficult, reducing overall productivity and workplace efficiency. 

Furniture from OnePointe Solutions is made using the highest quality materials, selected for long-term durability and easy sanitation. No matter the nature of the work your facility does, we have got a surface material that will work for you. These durable, long-lasting, and easy to clean options will help you save time on routine cleaning procedures, and save you money by lasting for years. Surface material options include: 

Comfortable, Ergonomic Furniture

Ultimately, the efficiency of your facility will depend on the efficiency of your staff. While hiring the best and most qualified people is the biggest secret to successful laboratory management, ensuring these qualified individuals have access to comfortable, safe, and productive working conditions is of equal importance.

Lab technicians and personnel will work best when provided with the necessary equipment, given ample time to perform necessary testing, and allowed to work in a comfortable environment. Believe it or not, the tables and seating you choose to furnish your facility may impact personnel efficiency and should be carefully selected for comfort and ergonomic value. 

Ergonomically designed furniture is furniture that has been made with the human body in mind and is designed to promote good posture for improved health and performance. Poor posture and uncomfortable seating can impact concentration and employee health, ultimately reducing overall performance and efficiency.

Ergonomic seating and workstations enable laboratory personnel to focus on their work, ensuring comfort and reducing strain on joints and muscles to enhance long term comfort and productivity. 

Need Help Building a More Automated Lab?

Call (866) 222-7494 to get in touch with our lab designers for a quote to get started.

Questions? Concerns? Want to start today? Get in touch. 866.612.7312

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