The Future of Lab Automation Requires Enterprise Thinking

From startups to the largest biopharma research organizations, we have the great fortune of being in and out of tons of different labs across the globe. As a result, we also see commonalities and differences in how companies approach the specification and deployment of automation technology in their enterprises.

If there is one thing that is consistent across almost all organizations, it is that the amount of “enterprise thinking” in the selection and deployment of technology is not nearly as high as it will need to be given where automation technology is headed.

What do we mean by enterprise thinking? Today, most organizations with multiple sites and departments appropriate capital to business groups and users based on their local needs and goals, and then let the local users select and configure their automation systems. As a result, in any given lab you will likely find automation suites put together by a variety of different suppliers, running on different software, and performing unrelated tasks. Lab to lab the differences get bigger, and site to site even bigger. Where one location in North America may be heavily invested in platform A, a sister site in Europe may be much more invested in platform B. Decisions are local, and as a result, the technology portfolio lacks overarching intent and architecture.

Developments in automation technology are likely to make fully localized and uncoordinated technology selection even less desirable for a variety of reasons. First of all, software suites are increasingly interrelated if not converging entirely. Connectivity between LIMS, automation scheduling software, data analysis packages, and overall lab management software is increasing at a fast pace. Having a multitude of automation platforms all running on different core software platforms across an enterprise will make maintaining consistency and efficacy on a global basis that much more challenging.

Second, automation is becoming more and more mobile, opening up new applications for the technology and changing the way it can be deployed. When all robotics relied on non-collaborative industrial robots with significant guarding, each automation installation was its own monolithic and static entity. Today, robots can be put on carts and moved from lab to lab, greatly extending the range of what processes can be automated, and the location in which robots operate throughout an enterprise. The extended reach of automation makes asset flexibility much higher, which also benefits from platform standardization. It is simply much easier to move like assets from lab to lab than to try and shift around dissimilar assets on different platforms.

Third, we are simply not that far away from functional self-moving robots that travel around labs performing a wider range of tasks. Autonomous mobile robots will depend heavily on centralized software to coordinate and prioritize tasks and register and collect data. It is quite likely that autonomous mobile robots in lab settings will frequently want to interact with some of the more fixed installation elements, further making it desirable to take a “platform” approach to technology selection rather than allowing it to be selected piecemeal.

Organizations who understand the likely evolution of lab automation technology will also quickly see the benefits of “enterprise thinking” sooner rather than later. The biggest barrier to broad, coordinated automation deployment will likely be too many dissimilar and unconnectable existing assets rather than the ability to connect and coordinate in of itself. This is a problem that can be mitigated by developing an overall enterprise strategy for automation, which allows local specification, but within an overall global technology framework. Those who wait too long to embrace this thinking are quite likely to find themselves handcuffed down the road.

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