How to improve productivity in labs

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The digitalisation of daily processes has been growing exponentially over the past decade and we are now entering a new era of science that embeds technology to automate experimental workflows. As technology continues to develop, a future of automated laboratories appears increasingly likely. Innovation of traditionally manual processes via automation enables the streamlining of operations, leading to increased efficiency and lab productivity. As laboratory workloads increase with the perpetual discovery of novel findings, automation has the potential to revolutionise science by maximising laboratory outputs and minimising mundane manual labour for staff.

What is lab productivity?

Productivity is a broad term that can be based on a myriad of laboratory outputs, such as drug output in the biotech industry, or research paper publications within academia. At the granular level, lab productivity can be measured as a function of working time versus idle time or the number of tests completed in a day (1).

Fundamentally, the productivity of a laboratory defines its viability. For example, generating data for research increases the likelihood of grant awards for academics while comparably, increasing commercial output in industry directly increases revenues and profitability.

How can lab productivity be improved?

Manual liquid handling is viable for low-complexity and low-throughput workflows which limit the ability to scale up laboratory processes. With the demand for scientific innovation increases, laboratories cannot be reliant upon manual pipetting as the demand for output and quicker development times increase. Pipetting can be erroneous without a liquid-handling robot, subjected to varying results from researcher to researcher. Further, researchers are exposed to risks such as repetitive strain injuries and exposure to hazardous substances during pipetting. The researchers involved in these processes may be dissatisfied with their jobs, performing tedious pipetting again and again instead of their expertise being invested in innovative research.

How automated liquid handling can help

Every laboratory wants to maximise output and work as efficiently and effectively as possible. There are endless articles on ways in which to improve productivity, however, there are several common themes (2):

  • Improve workflow management: Plan experiments so the longest assays are initiated first to enable the shortest timeline possible.
  • Put spare time to good use: Utilise time spent waiting for instruments to finish processes by initiating the next batch or experiment to eliminate idle time.
  • Utilise laboratory space: Keep workflow-related equipment in the same space to minimise transit time.
  • Ensure a well-kept laboratory: This can minimise the incidence of mistakes.
  • Share workloads between staff: Many hands make light work!

Increasing lab productivity with automation

Many steps to improve lab productivity are actioned inefficiently through manual intervention by increasing the workforce or work time. On the other hand,  implementing technology provides a more efficient solution by purposely removing manual labour and increasing lab productivity through the use of automation. Streamlining processes using automated technology can maximise the efficiency of the laboratory, for example by minimising the idle time between processes. 

Unless a laboratory is manually staffed 24 hours a day, productivity is generally limited to the standard 9-5 working hours. By embedding automated technology into a laboratory, productivity can be maximised outside of staffed hours, increasing workflow output with the potential to more than double productivity. Using these high throughput methods further reduces the turnaround time and increases the volume of work that is completed in a working day, improving the cost-effectiveness of operations (3).

However, the aim of automation is not to replace the entire laboratory workforce through robotics and digitalisation. Instead, automation eases the burden of banal tasks on a skilled workforce, freeing up the hands of trained staff to be utilised elsewhere in the workflow. For example, automation of a bacterial colony counting workflow can be achieved by connecting a plate carousel to an automated colony counter microscope via a robotic arm. Eliminating this daily repetitive task enables staff to dedicate their time to other projects which require greater skill, such as novel research or process development. 

While singular robotic pieces can be beneficial, lab automation productivity is fully realised when multiple steps are automated in tandem, such as the use of the robotic arm in the previous example to fully automate the colony counting process.

In addition, the training and skills required to use automation machinery will lead to upskilling of the current workforce and further creation of new jobs to assist with the demand for embedding and optimising the latest technology. In today’s laboratory landscape, we see a hybrid working style with laboratories embracing automation, as semi-automated workflows work hand in hand with manual intervention. This highlights the potential for its rollout across laboratories globally.

As automation technology develops, more laboratories will turn to machinery to assist in the day-to-day running of laboratory processes. However, as laboratories make this transition, they are met with some obstacles such as the expense and size of the machinery currently available. As the demand for automation increases, companies will offer solutions to these current limitations at competitive rates. This will in turn bring automated tools to market that are optimised to suit the needs of the end users. The potential for such developments in automation is exponential, and sophisticated technology is being integrated into laboratory settings regularly to overcome the barriers which hinder productivity.

Adopting automation in laboratories aims to improve the efficiency and productivity of workflows. It offers the potential to unlock a sustainable operational standard that is optimised to use personnel and equipment in unison for 24 hours a day at a constant speed. A dynamic workforce of humans and machines can drive the innovation of laboratory landscapes to boost productivity, thus maximising the efficiency and effectiveness of processes to provide a streamlined service.

References:

  1. 8 steps to increase the productivity of your lab [Internet]. Blog.genofab.com. . Available from: https://blog.genofab.com/lab-productivity
  2. Tyagi M, Rothenberg I. Improving Laboratory Productivity Through Automation | AACC.org [Internet]. Aacc.org. 2022. Available from: https://www.aacc.org/science-and-research/scientific-shorts/2022/improving-laboratory-productivity-through-automation
  3. Hosein R. How automation is increasing productivity within labs [Internet]. Manufacturingchemist.com. 2019. Available from: https://manufacturingchemist.com/news/article_page/How_automation_is_increasing_productivity_within_labs/160721

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