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Lab automation – Poised for substantial expansion

Laboratory automation combines a range of sophisticated robots, advanced artificial intelligence, and cloud-based solutions. This new reality is reinventing the field of life sciences.

Laboratory automation as a concept transcends the mere mechanization of repetitive tasks. It encompasses integrating artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data analytics. Moreover, the mobility provided by these new solutions endows them with their total value. Whether it concerns the variety of actions that robots can now perform or the fact that they move through space easily, the barriers of robotics diminish with every new advancement. The goal is to create laboratory automation that is more efficient, intuitive, and adaptable to scientific research needs. At the same time, the lab environment stays as it is. This transformation is not just a matter of convenience; it is necessary to remain competitive in a sector where the accuracy of results and the efficiency of processes are paramount.

While automation may be presented to the clinical laboratory in several ways, the utilization and incorporation of integrated instrumentation must align with the laboratory’s goals and needs. Automation can be stratified as task-targeted, subtotal, or total in nature, depending on the activities and processes supported by the platform. Common considerations for automation include the electronic identification and recognition of specimens and orders, specimen container flexibility, sample management prioritization, and physical and software-mediated integration with analytical instrumentation.

Although centralized laboratory automation has largely involved the integrated connectivity of the pre- and post-analytical phases of the testing process to chemistry and immunochemistry analyzers, integrated automation for hematology, coagulation, urinalysis, and molecular and microbiological testing is also available. Expectations of integrated laboratory automation include consolidation of resources, increased accuracy of pre-analytic processes, increased throughput, and improved turnaround time, among others.

Automation has facilitated breakthroughs in single-cell biology, a field previously constrained by manual manipulation’s limitations. With integrated units from different companies, which consolidate multiple processes into a single instrument, researchers can now easily manipulate individual cells while extracting DNA or RNA. This capability opens up new avenues for exploration and experimentation that were previously unattainable due to the constraints imposed by the size of reaction chambers and flow paths.

A widespread interest in automation was observed during the pandemic, with many individuals and industries considering its adoption for the first time. The scarcity of supplies, such as reagents and tips, posed a significant challenge. To overcome this, improvised solutions like 3D printing plastic tips showcased the ingenuity and adaptability of researchers.

Although the supply chain issues have largely been resolved, the experience highlighted the potential for self-reliance and the importance of preparedness in times of crisis.

The labs are gradually moving to complete automation. This includes total laboratory automation (TLA) and task-targeted automation (TTA) and represents a transformative approach to streamline and enhance laboratory processes. TTA involves automating specific laboratory tasks, while TLA involves automating entire laboratory processes. TTA and TLA systems enable researchers to handle large volumes of samples and data, accelerating the pace of scientific discovery and innovation. Overall, the lab automation market growth is driven by the need for efficiency, technological advancements, and drug discovery demands.

Advantages of pre-analytical modules – Help IVD lab automation achieve towering efficiency

Prof Praveen Sharma
Scientific Consultant,
Snibe Diagnostics

Due to the increasing public attention on healthcare, the clinical laboratory automation field is experiencing rapid growth in response to high clinical demand. A recent study on clinical laboratory automation indicates that the global market for lab automation is projected to reach a size of USD 5.7 billion by 2030, with India being one of the largest markets for it. The India lab automation market is expected to exhibit a CAGR of 8 percent during the period from 2024 to 2032.

In order to address the evolving needs of India’s healthcare system, there is a critical need to enhance and improve lab automation technology. By doing so, it will ensure that the growing population has access to high-quality healthcare services that are also affordable. Additionally, as healthcare expenditure continues to rise, it is imperative to optimize costs through streamlined processes, and lab automation can play a crucial role in achieving this goal.

The pre-analytical module is an essential component of the IVD lab automation system, and it plays a critical role in sample preprocessing. The quality of sample preprocessing directly impacts diagnostic results, making it imperative to enhance the capabilities of the pre-analytical module. Nowadays, the latest technologies offer a wide range of impressive benefits in the pre-analytical module:

Safety. The bulk loading module and the decapper/sealer module for sample loading will significantly reduce the need for manual intervention. This eliminates the necessity for laborers to handle sample decapping or recapping manually, thereby reducing aerosol pollution in the air or risk of wound infection. Consequently, this effectively mitigates the risk associated with handling hazardous samples and ensures the safety of laboratory personnel.

Efficiency. The pre-analytical module optimizes sample handling workflow, minimizing space requirements while simplifying processes and increasing efficiency.

Reliable. By reducing the number of manual steps, many of the deviations that can occur in preprocessing can be avoided, ensuring the accuracy of the test.

Cost-saving. Based on the newly developed AI and ML, the current system can maximize the calculation to deduce the most appropriate consumption before the test by dispensing samples so as to reduce the cost of each test. Meanwhile, through the function of cloud data uploading, it greatly promotes the process of paperless laboratory, which is extremely helpful for energy saving and environmental protection.

They enhance the accuracy and reproducibility of experiments, optimize resource utilization, and accelerate research and development processes. Further, lab automation is commonly employed in various scientific and research settings, including biotechnology, clinical diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, and academic research.

Products include robotic workstations, automated liquid handling systems, microplate readers, automated storage and retrieval systems, and software solutions. The market’s trajectory is propelled by the soaring global demand for laboratory automation software services. Vendors strategically integrate software as an additional service with their laboratory automation systems to fortify customer loyalty and ensure impeccable results. These software services, characterized by user-friendly interfaces, facilitate data sample analysis, closely mimicking manual plating procedures. Compliance with regulatory recommendations and the adaptability of software services to end-users’ needs significantly impact the market positively.

Vendors embrace diverse strategies, encompassing strategic alliances, partnerships, mergers and acquisitions, geographical expansion, and product/service launches.

By end-user, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies segment is positioned for significant growth, fuelled by a heightened focus on high-content screening (HCS) applications. Utilizing laboratory automation systems for drug discovery solutions amplifies productivity in the drug discovery process. Automated liquid handling systems within this segment are pivotal in screening clinically relevant compounds during drug discovery. The reluctance of small-scale and medium-scale laboratories to adopt automated solutions poses a significant challenge to market growth. Emerging trends include the adoption of standardization and automation in the in-vitro diagnostics industry.

As for any other system, there are downsides. Introducing a streamlined automated way of working will significantly change the landscape of a busy lab by reducing the need for as many team members. Another downside is the high cost of installing and implementing the system. Changes must be made to the clinical laboratory to make space for the large hardware required. The environmental modifications required to install a TLA system will be costly, from powerful air conditioning units to soundproofing, as is the TLA system itself! The laboratory will also have to pay for ongoing maintenance and supplies needed to run the total laboratory automation successfully. As well as the high installation costs, the implementation of a TLA system will also be disruptive to the laboratory. Implementing a TLA system requires in-depth planning and may take weeks or even months to fully complete. This can be incredibly disruptive to the team working in the clinical laboratory.

Some other limitations are:

Incorrect application of automation could result in a rapid propagation of errors. For instance, improper calibration of machines may produce numerous incorrect products, while variations in input materials across laboratories could hinder reproducibility.

Obsolescence is a prevalent challenge in laboratory automation, as the rapid evolution of hardware and software often renders costly technologies obsolete, such as the emergence of newer thermostable polymerases, which makes previous PCR machinery outdated.

Innovation inhibition and automation can inhibit creativity in experimental processes by limiting opportunities for altering experimental protocols.

The environmental impact of laboratory automation depends on the life span of the equipment, disposal, and recycling scope. Automation designed with the single-use plastic principle generates greater volumes of plastic waste that harms the environment.

Financial impact of lab automation
Implementing laboratory automation entails a significant upfront investment, covering the acquisition of advanced robotic systems and AI technologies, and their integration into existing infrastructures and workflows. Despite these initial costs, the financial benefits of automation are substantial.

A study in clinical chemistry highlights that automation can reduce manual processing steps by up to 86 percent, significantly enhancing operational efficiency and lowering labor costs. Additionally, some laboratories have experienced a ten-fold increase in daily work volumes after implementing automation. This increased scalability allows laboratories to manage larger workloads, directly impacting productivity and efficiency.

Such financial gains are particularly advantageous in high-throughput environments, enabling laboratories to meet growing medical and scientific research demands, while maximizing return on investment.

Laboratories are transforming into true epicenters of innovation by integrating advanced robotic technologies. Soft robotics is emerging as an innovative solution. It opens new perspectives in biotechnology, food, and agriculture sectors. Combined with new materials, this technology allows robots to perform more complex logistical tasks.

In these research spaces, we no longer find traditional robots with rigid and predictable movements but machines with unprecedented flexibility and adaptability. These technological advances are not limited to improving existing performance; they open the door to new ways of conceiving work in laboratories, making processes smoother, more intuitive, and significantly more efficient.

The transformation does not stop there. Mobile robots, already well-established in warehouses, are beginning to explore more varied terrains. In environments like airports, these mobile robots venture beyond structured spaces to deliver goods to passengers in terminals. Recent breakthroughs in AI and perception technologies make this expansion into unstructured environments possible.

Each step forward in laboratory robotics is not just a technological advancement; it is a step toward a future where scientific research is faster, more precise, and remarkably more efficient.

Laboratory automation combines a range of sophisticated robots, advanced AI, and cloud-based solutions. This new reality is reinventing the field of life sciences.

Outlook
Faced with challenges, such as inefficiency, complexity in data management, and resource constraints, we view automation as a simple remedy and strategic change. It opens a new chapter of accelerated research, enhanced precision, and unprecedented productivity. This technology is not merely an improvement of existing processes; it is the catalyst for a new and bold era in scientific research.

The future of laboratories in the life sciences is not just promising but truly inspiring. We are at the dawn of a new era where automation surpasses its traditional role to become a pivotal point of cutting-edge scientific discoveries.

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