Achieving automation process improvements through innovative barcoding strategies

July 25, 2017

The need to track and manage research samples, specimens, reagents, and testing kits is not new, and it is most commonly met with barcodes. In today’s competitive landscape, barcodes and labels often demand a strategy beyond just data management or identification: they are often used in conjunction with automated processes and equipment. With additional trends like miniaturization and outsourcing sweeping the global healthcare industry, the barcode now plays a larger role than ever in ensuring efficiency, accuracy, and competitive differentiation in the lab.

To support strategic growth goals while leveraging existing infrastructure, it is imperative to explore additional opportunities for utilization of barcode and automation identification technology. In the next five years, three themes will dominate: Label automation, hybrid RFID-barcodes, and outsourcing services. Each offers a set of benefits that directly affect the performance of automated systems and processes.

Integrating automation for streamlined workflows

Nearly every lab can benefit from a more streamlined workflow. Implementing a print-and-apply applicator is a commonly used approach to achieve that goal. With systems available that are able to sort labware and dispense, orient, and automatically apply labels, human intervention is minimized while throughput and accuracy are improved. The primary benefits that accompany automatic label application include the ability to print variable data on-demand and precision label placement even on the smallest of containers. Many automated labeling systems have the ability to guarantee a placement tolerance of up to ± 0.2 mm, which ensures that the barcode is applied in the correct position for downstream automatic scanning in the workflow.

Beyond the value of on-demand flexibility and barcode placement accuracy for automated scanning, there is also the opportunity to integrate automatic label applicators to existing lab automation workflows or to the laboratory information management system (LIMS) to further increase accuracy and ensure streamlined data management. Adopting this approach will increase efficiencies and throughput and provide an end-to-end automation system for optimal lab productivity.

Adopting RFID technology with current infrastructure

Barcode labels are the trusted tracking method of labs around the world. When working with an established supplier, those labels have been tested to withstand chemicals and extreme temperatures, and offer an adhesive bond so they will remain affixed to their respective containers throughout the intended process. The barcode serves an essential automatic identification function within the automation process. There are, however, technical limitations. Barcodes must be visible to be read, and they can only provide static data. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is an emerging technology in labs that offers the versatility to read, write, and automatically obtain data without line-of-sight.

RFID provides flexibility that a barcode cannot. Fully appreciating that current automated processes and workflows rely heavily on scanning barcodes, it wouldn’t be fair to assume the marketplace will adopt a wholesale process change to an existing infrastructure just to realize additional tracking benefits. There is, however, a compromise: the hybrid RFID-barcode. This innovation relies on the barcode to provide even more value as it’s the foundation for integrating and introducing RFID technology. The hybrid offers the best of both worlds as it provides improved technological benefits without the need to sacrifice entire workflows.
Employing a hybrid RFID-barcode strategy to automated processes provides labs the opportunity to capture and utilize dynamic, real-time information from within the workflow without jeopardizing or interrupting existing processes. Boosting efficiencies with this leading-edge technology, while still relying on and fully utilizing automated systems, RFID greatly expands the universe of automated tracking possibilities.

Outsourcing the labeling strategy

Another option that many labs now find is worth exploring is outsourcing the labeling process with a collaborative partner. What does that mean for the lab? It means obtaining pre-labeled tubes, vials, plates, and other containers to meet exact specifications.

Such an agreement can involve service elements such as labware procurement, automatic labeling, and tare weighing of containers, and/or custom kitting and packing for optimal efficiencies upon delivery to the lab. In outsourcing the activities related to labware labeling, end-users are provided with an unmatched level of accuracy and efficiency.

The selected barcode-marking technology, placement accuracy, and label specifications should all take into account the automated process within which they will later function. For example, if a lab is currently using a tube sourced from a manufacturer that includes a 2D code laser etched to the bottom, but doesn’t include a linear code on the side (or vice versa), the outsourcing partner can often create a secondary barcode for automated scanning from the existing code on the tube or vial. Similarly, some automated systems are designed for specified labware, and if that container doesn’t allow for a 2D code on the bottom due to shape or size, the right outsourcing partner can custom fit plugs that contain 2D codes to utilize existing labware, ensure optimization with automation, and provide tracking throughout the process via barcode scanning. Flexibility to attain the correct barcoding solution to align with automated systems should be discussed early on with the label outsourcing partner.

Outsourcing provides an accurately placed barcode on either the side or bottom of labware to ensure proper integration with automated lab systems. In addition, labware received by the lab already barcoded and ready for use saves time, money, and space.

Determining the best barcoding solution

Today there are multiple tools and technologies to ensure both accurate sample tracking and optimization of automated systems. Ensuring a solution that meets today’s needs and positions the lab for future growth is critical. With flexibility can come a host of decisions, so an experienced and trustworthy partner is also critical. In order to ensure a system that suits your lab and leverages all the benefits that automatic identification has to offer, the solution must take into account the unique needs of your processes.

Bruce Wray has been involved in lab automation and automatic identification—barcodes and RFID—for more than 35 years. He currently manages the transfusion medicine market for Computype, He is an active participant in standards-setting and educational activities with CLSI, ICCBBA, and ISBT.

Jeff Denton has been involved in harsh environment automatic identification and durable in-mold labeling for more than 20 years. He is currently the Global Product Manager for
Computype’s READY Labware Services program.