Lab automation is key to collecting more data and better data. There is more to laboratory automation than just automating physical operations. It is necessary to automate the data collection and data analysis processes even when they are executed by human operators.
The need for lab automation
Biology increasingly requires experiments to be performed in higher throughput, to produce the large datasets needed to generate scientific insights and eventually, publications or patents. Despite this, many labs still retain manual techniques, at most using 8 channel or 12 channel multi-pipettes, with reactions being performed in Eppendorf tubes. More advanced labs make use of 96 or 384 multiwell plates and many researchers are progressively performing experiments with substantially higher sample numbers, for example in qPCR, NGS library sequencing or Elisa testing.
However, manual preparation of greatly increased numbers of samples has significant disadvantages:
Designing experiments for a higher throughput and pipetting the required reagents into tubes or wells of plates is a very time consuming and error-prone task.
The reaction setup is often very complex, where the operator refers to Excel sheets or handwritten notes to determine where the next ingredient goes. This causes a lot of mistakes.
The volume of reactions is often relatively large, since manual pipettes are unable to transfer very small volumes of reagents, bringing increased costs.
In consequence, researchers are increasingly turning to lab automation. A wide range of liquid handlers are available that allow the operator to set up an experiment using easily understandable software. The liquid handler quickly and reproducibly dispenses the required reagents into 96, 384 or even 1536 multiwell plates, which dramatically improves speed and reproducibility. Specialized liquid handlers, including bulk dispensers and acoustic dispensers allow miniaturization of the reaction volumes to save money on reagent cost. Other automated equipment can then be used to perform the reactions (e.g. PCR machines, real time PCR machines, incubators). This is followed by analysis in plate format (e.g. microscopes, plate readers, microfermenters etc.). More advanced setups integrate individual machines that are necessary for the workflow, using a robotic arm. The operator is then not required to transfer the plates between items of equipment. This level of lab automation makes it very easy for the operator to create and perform large scale experiments faster, more reproducibly and at a lower cost.
It is, however, often overlooked that automation of the experiments can readily generate enormous numbers of samples, reactions and data that must be tracked. Before investing in expensive automated equipment, we recommend that a lab first puts in place an effective LIMS system capable of tracking the number of samples that automated instruments will generate.
It is of greatest importance that all steps before, during and after the automated laboratory operations are recorded and handled properly and automatically. This is termed process automation. Lab automation can only succeed when combined with effective process automation.
At GenoFAB we help research organizations interested in automate their laboratory to design robust processes. We ensure that operational and scientific information are extracted from the workflow and passed on to each team member, as needed, to retain all relevant information and continuously improve the process.