The Importance of Hardware in Lab Automation
One outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic was the increased interest in laboratory automation across the life sciences. Once known only to sample management and high throughput screening applications, lab automation is becoming more ubiquitous across the entire drug discovery continuum. If it sounds fancy, it’s because it is!
With that said, what is lab automation? How is it defined? That is a multi-faceted question, for example:
- Is lab automation a bench top device (i.e., Agilent MultiFlo dispenser)?
- Is a stand-alone liquid handler considered lab automation?
- What about a liquid handling workstation?
- Is a robotic arm solution a requirement to be defined as lab automation?
- Do you need to use scheduling software to be considered a lab automation solution?
- Is lab automation an electronic lab notebook?
- Do I need to hire an individual to run and oversee my lab automation?
The simple answer to all the above is yes.
With the upcoming SLAS2023 conference starting on February 25, you will likely hear and receive a plethora of definitions from various vendors on what defines a lab automation solution. Depending on the vendor you visit, you will listen to varying themes and arguments on what truly defines lab automation. Let me simplify this for you, any device that removes a task from a scientist’s hands can be classified as a lab automation solution. It combines hardware, software, and people into a viable solution. You need all three tenets to define lab automation, and you need all three tenets to ensure the success of your project.
This three-part blog series focuses on and describes the three tenets of lab automation. This first blog focuses on hardware, because hardware is visible, tangible, and something every scientist can relate with. You will learn other users’ perspectives and how to avoid pitfalls from incredibly talented individuals.
As stated above, any device that removes a task from a scientist’s hands can be considered a lab automation solution. This includes a plate sealer, dispenser, washer, liquid handler, etc. This then means that there are varying degrees of complexity regarding lab automation hardware in the life science market. We can categorize these degrees as simple, medium, hard, and complex. The table below outlines each category and classifies devices associated with each.
|Simple||Stand-alone devices||Agilent PlateLoc, Thermo Combi,|
|Medium||1 – 2 device integrations||1, 2, or 3 devices connected via a plate transport solution (i.e. Agilent BenchCel, reader feeder)|
|Hard||Liquid handler, Liquid handling workstations||Hamilton Vantage, Tecan Fluent, Beckman Coulter i5/i7…|
|Complex||Robotic systems, distributed systems, modular systems||HighRes, Thermo, Biosero,|
After reviewing the above table, the key points you must remember when selecting lab automation hardware, whether a stand-alone device, liquid handler, or robot, is this:
- Speak with colleagues and/or other users that have experience with the solution
- Test it to validate the solution addresses your scientific requirements
- Ensure that it fits within your specified footprint
- Use the device for the purpose for which it was built
- Choose adaptable hardware
The last bullet point is the most critical. Change is constant, and it is no different in scientific research. The scientific research you performed five years ago has evolved into something entirely different today. And your research focus may again be different five years from now.
Let’s consider the following case study: a scientist selects a stand-alone liquid handler to automate their research processes. The chosen vendor’s liquid handler is probably the best tool to achieve the scientist’s results at the time of purchase. The key phrase here is “at the time”. After twelve to twenty-four months of use, the scientist’s requirements change. As part of this change, the scientist starts considering the possibility of integrating devices on or directly adjacent to the deck of the liquid handler. For our purposes, let’s assume they want to integrate a plate reader and storage for plates and consumables.
Immediately following the integration of these two devices, the impact on the scientist’s research is less human interaction and more time to analyze data.
Twelve to eighteen months into the future, the team’s research focus changes again. In addition to the reader and storage device already integrated into the liquid handler, the scientists want to incorporate an incubator and a washer/dispenser device into their now liquid handling workstation solution. Herein lies the problem. Liquid handlers are excellent tools to aspirate and dispense (“transfer”) reagents from one tube or plate to another and they are specifically designed for that purpose. They are NOT designed to become systems. In fact, the more devices you integrate around a “liquid handler”, the probability of negatively impacting your sample uniformity across your assays increases.
Each of us needs to understand the capabilities of the devices we select to perform our work and the limitations of those devices. By understanding the limitations of each device, you can correctly map how you and your team map the evolution of your lab automation hardware to positively impact your scientific research.
Once you select your device, other questions will come to mind. How will the software for said device, liquid handler, system help me get to a scientific discovery faster? How can I use the data being generated to make better informed decisions? What do I do with this data? Where am I going to store it? These questions are all normal and lead us to the segway to the second tenet of lab automation – software.
In closing, I would like to thank several individuals for taking the time to connect with me and discuss this topic over the past several years. Your time and feedback helped craft this blog. Huge thanks to: Tim Dawes, Jonathan Schneeweis, Matt Humes, Paul Harper, Sam Michael.