Every clinical laboratory faces the challenge of delivering a higher volume of output, reducing errors and producing faster turnaround times – all at reduced cost. After a certain point of time, laboratories may find that they cannot increase productivity with their existing equipment. Advances in the automation of laboratory equipment and processes are helping laboratories deal with increase in testing volumes and meet physician demand for accurate, faster diagnostic test results.
Lab automation involves designing, procuring, implementing, and integrating automated instruments and electronic, and informatics tools to perform a wide range of laboratory tasks, which would help laboratories maximize productivity and efficiency, resolve staffing challenges, and minimize errors. Another goal of automation is interoperability with lab systems that can provide services to and accept services from each other, and the use of this interface to operate effectively.
Trends in Laboratory Automation
Total laboratory automation (TLA) resembles the assembly line in a manufacturing plant. Take the state-of-the-art lab of the future that Siemens is collaborating to build. The new facility will result in continuously operating laboratory plant with an innovative 200-meter high-speed track with a technology-driven process that will facilitate high-speed operations from sample flow through processing, testing and storage.
An article recently published by the American Association of Clinical Chemistry (AACC) describes current trends in lab automation, all of which are aimed at improving outcomes, enhancing patient safety, and ensuring faster turnaround time:
- Drive to automate phlebotomy: A company is developing an instrument that can locate forearm veins and then map the trajectory for a venipuncture robot carrying a needle.
- Pre-analytical automation: A team at the University of Utah is developing an automated specimen inspector that examines the quality of specimens including proper labeling, sufficient volume, and correct vial additive. After evaluation, the specimens will move to an automated sorting area.
- Specimen transportation: Here, ongoing efforts to resolve inflexible pickup times and delays include the development of electric track vehicles, mobile robots and even drones which can move small numbers of specimens from a clinic to a laboratory.
- Sample labeling: Attempts are on to develop affordable radio-frequency identification (RFID) are aimed at reducing errors by completely eliminating manual scans which automated barcodes often require.
The future will also see developments in automated specimen separation, rapid sequencing of entire microbe DNA/RNA, automation of cell-based assays, and disease monitoring.
Extent of Automation
Automation is desirable and laboratorians need to stay current on new opportunities. However, experts point out that labs looking to automate should have a clear view of their goals. In other words, the extent of automation that a lab should adopt depends on its situation. For instance, automation may be desirable for high-volume DNA extraction from blood or plasma samples, a routine, predictable assay which is susceptible to errors in labeling tubes and errors in pipetting.
On the other hand, if the automation decision is based on historical usage, then the lab manager needs to think about how much investment is required for automation and “how long it will take to get the time back that it takes to install and make the system work”. One facility decided not to automate flow cytometry based on this consideration as they needed to put on plates only two days a month, a task which was more cost-effective to do manually.
While taking the automation decision, labs must consider their budget, the level of technical support that would be required, as well as the potential disadvantages of installing the system. Finally, as there are several brands and models of automated analyzers and other equipment available on the market, the manager needs to exercise caution when choosing an option.