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Automation in the Lab of the Future

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The automation of lab work and data processing can reduce the impact of human error, improve data reliability and help optimize workflows and processes in the lab.

At the recent Future Labs Live conference, Technology Networks spoke to Mathew Keegan, head of applications engineering at Automata. Keegan discussed how automation in the lab was recently adopted to improve the safety of lab practices in a COVID-19 testing facility.

Keegan also highlights how automation is already enhancing the lab experience, the challenges it faces and where it may head in the future.


Molly Campbell (MC): Can you discuss the role that automation is already having in the laboratory, and how you envision that will change in the future?

Mathew Keegan (MK): The use of robotics and automation in labs is already improving the precision and speed of experiments and research, enabling scientists to spend more of their time thinking about new and innovative ideas. For example, automation empowers lab technicians to process and analyze higher volumes of data with greater accuracy and precision. It enables this by automatically inputting data into reports, reducing the number of errors in manual reporting and improving the reliability of data. From drug discovery to lab-grown meat, automation gives scientists the opportunity to explore new, more accurate ideas on a larger scale.

Going forward, we’re likely to see many more companies taking a capability-first, not capacity-first, approach to automation. With start-ups and scale-ups pumping out innovation at an ever-increasing rate, automation will have to adapt to high-growth situations where scientists are moving away from traditional, fixed systems. The increased capacity allows organizations to scale, helping to utilize lab space better and potentially bringing expansive commercial benefits.


MC: How can automation in the lab empower scientists to collaborate?

MK: Unfortunately, manual data collection is still the norm in many labs, and the risk of lost results and human error that this introduces can make it difficult for scientists to share accurate information with each other. Automated data collection allows scientists to spend more time engaging with their research and form new ideas using data they know is accurate. When paired with cloud solutions, scientists can work together from all over the world without having to endure the tedious task of manual data collection and entry.


MC: Can you discuss Automata’s strategies for optimizing workflows and processes in the laboratory?

MK: When you link multiple automation technologies, you can automate entire workflows in the lab. Traditional workflow automation systems are often large, rigid structures that cannot be altered or changed – giving labs little flexibility to innovate or change how they work. At Automata, we’re moving away from this traditional style to what we define as a “capability automation” approach.

Efficient automation requires processes to be agile and adapt to the changing needs of a working lab – a series of capabilities, rather than a set of fixed steps. Opening up fixed systems and breaking them into modular products gives lab technicians the flexibility to add or remove equipment depending on their needs, empowering them to challenge the norm and discover new ways of working.


MC: What are the key challenges associated with introducing automation into a laboratory, and how does this vary across different labs?

MK: Often, the biggest challenge across labs is that scientists can be hesitant to embrace “new” technology like robotics and automation. That’s because they prefer to work with what’s familiar to them or they don’t often see large-scale automation projects to compare and see the benefits.

For example, while the diagnostics industry is one that can hugely benefit from the technology, it is held back by its hesitance to move towards newer methods. Over time, the industry has taken to sticking with the same off-the-shelf equipment such as liquid handlers, because they know how to use it and they trust it. However, this can be limiting for scientists in the long term and leaves little room for change and growth. 

As the results of diagnostic processes have real impact on how patients are treated, a high level of accuracy is essential in the lab. Due to this, scientists want to be as close to the process as possible and can feel hesitant to trust the “hands-off” nature of many large-scale automation projects – especially when coming at it alone. Partnering with an automation provider can help them make the jump into the unfamiliar and understand the long-term gains that can arise from automation.


MC: Are you able to discuss any case studies in which automation has significantly enhanced a scientist’s experience in the lab?

MK: We recently worked alongside the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust (UHS) to automate their COVID-19 saliva testing program, which required the testing of up to 100,000 saliva samples a day. The UHS was tasked with delivering a testing program that covers the local population of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and needed both an automation system capable of working at scale and one that was flexible – able to pass off problematic saliva samples for manual processing. Working alongside engineers from the program, Automata designed and developed automated liquid handling systems that can be reprogrammed live on-site to meet changing requirements. The results have been transformative with the UHS now able to deliver hundreds of thousands of tests per day, reducing the chance of human error. It also made lab practices safer for staff, removing scientists from potential exposure to biohazardous substances and protecting them from infection.  


MC: After attending the Future Labs Live event, what is your perspective on the lab of the future?

MK: Automation gives labs an opportunity to catapult into the future. A huge step forward is scientists realizing the true benefits that technology can offer and this change in mindset was certainly present at Future Labs Live. I left the event optimistic that very soon, we’re going to see more labs where people and robots are working side by side.

In the next five years, we’re going to see the emergence of labs that leverage automation to speed up sample preparation and establish high-throughput versions of complex workflows. All this while minimizing the risk of cross-contamination, eliminating human error and saving time and resources. We may even start to see “lights out labs” – labs that operate 24 hours a day, maximizing their efficiency and shortening schedules for faster delivery of results. Making the lab of the future a reality means not only allowing scientists to achieve more in the lab, but helping organizations achieve their wider objectives – such as bringing drugs to market – faster.


Mathew Keegan was speaking to Molly Campbell, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks.