Planning for laboratory automation

July 25, 2017

Almost daily, we read about the advent of automation in some new field that was previously the exclusive domain of human workers. The desire for machine accuracy, speed, and efficiency continues to push the boundaries of what we consider possible in a mechanized workplace. For laboratorians, though, workplace automation has been a reality for more than thirty years. From the first semi-automated diagnostic instruments through the installation of the first lab track line systems, the diagnostic and core labs of the world have been challenging technologists and engineers to provide avenues for faster, more accurate, and more efficient testing, and the advances continue today. Lab automation continues to transform the testing experience, moving into the areas of formerly labor-intensive testing such as mass spectrometry and immunofluorescence, not to mention the mechanization of both pre- and post-sample processing.

Exciting as all of this is, simply jumping into the race for mechanized efficiency can be dangerous. Wastes in time, effort, and money can result from hasty decisions. Pre-planning can make the transition to laboratory automation more robust and effective, and also turn possible resistance by some staff and stakeholders into support.

Workflow analysis

When considering the adoption of a new laboratory automation solution, whether a new clinical analyzer or an automated laboratory track line, utilizing a workflow analysis can net huge benefits fo a laboratory. A workflow study provides lab leaders with a clear, data-driven picture of what the laboratory is doing “right now.” The objective data delivers a comprehensive understanding of the strengths and weaknesses for the specific lab workflow and can pinpoint with clarity the exact areas that the lab needs to focus on to provide the most impact most efficiently.

Perhaps even more important, a good workflow analysis can capture the attention of all stakeholders in regard to the introduction of a new automation solution. Achieving a consensus can be critically important, especially when key stakeholders have different spoken or unspoken ideas of what the end goal of the automation solution should be. Getting buy-in early, with clear, objective data, can save headaches throughout a laboratory automation journey. Many laboratory automation vendors, from suppliers of diagnostic laboratory systems to the large track line automation vendors, offer workflow analyses to their clients.

Automation throughout the sample’s life cycle

When addressing laboratory automation, it can be tempting to think entirely in terms of the transformation of the pure sample testing process. Exciting options exist to provide cutting-edge automation and testing solutions to patient samples. It’s critical, however, not to be focused only on analytics to the exclusion of the entire life cycle of the patient sample. Often, so much attention is paid to sample testing that potentially huge gains in accuracy, efficiency, and quality can be missed in the pre- and post-analytic stages. Some of the biggest drags on the staff time can occur during the mundane tasks of tube preparation, including barcode and order verification, sorting, capping, de-capping, sample logging, and both short- and long-term storage.

Any proper workflow study will follow the life cycle of one (or preferably many) patient samples on their entire trip from the collection point to their final sorting and storage, or all the way to disposal. The result can be big wins in productivity and efficiency, not to mention error-proofing the laboratory, at all stages.

Thinking about tomorrow’s testing

Lab directors also should not be so focused on what their sample load and testing panel looks like today that they don’t make a clear plan for tomorrow, next year, or ten years from now. When auditioning a new automation solution, whether it’s a new hematology analyzer, a total workflow solution for infectious disease testing, or a redesign of laboratory space from sample intake to results delivery, lab directors should be thinking in terms of re-creating their lab for tomorrow’s testing. What might seem like more testing capacity than is needed for what they are doing today may be necessary for testing next year or three years from now.

The trends in the healthcare diagnostic industry all suggest that there will be an increase in both the quantity and variety of expanded testing needs, a continuing reduction in the available workforce, and a growing demand for improved turnaround time and efficient communication of results. The need for flexibility and adaptability in the laboratory is guiding more and more laboratorians to look for solutions that continue to grow their panel selections in diagnostic systems, as well as the ability to offer flexibility to third-party providers when talking about track line solutions.

Considering personnel

It should never be forgotten that the heart of diagnostic testing remains the people who do it. Even as the rapid expansion of mechanization transforms the way testing is accomplished, it’s still the dedicated staff that drives the adoption and interpretation of new testing schema. Creating a clear plan for testing staff during the adoption of new automation technologies can make the clear difference between ringing success and sputtering failure.

Automation excels at performing routine, mundane tasks with accuracy and speed, delivering high-performance results where they are needed the most. Lab directors should identify critical tasks that can be performed only by staff. These are usually the tasks that center around the interpretation of results, especially as they concern patient experience, health, and safety. Identifying these critical roles ahead of time can ensure that an automation plan will best utilize staff time and expertise where it can be most effective and impactful.

Automation solutions eliminate the need for specialized, highly trained staff to perform tasks such as sample sorting, capping, and decapping, and free them to devote more of their time to value-added tasks such as supervision of quality assurance efforts and the learning and adoption of even more cutting-edge technologies.

The value of planning

The steady march of lab automation makes this an exciting time to be involved in the diagnostic industry, but some pre-planning is needed to make the building of the automated lab of the future into a seamless and transformational experience for everyone involved. Working with potential providers to do a workflow analysis, considering the entire life cycle of patient samples, planning for the lab’s growth, taking into account issues related to lab personnel—all are part of taking full advantage of the universe of opportunities opening up in the area of automation. Planning can be the difference between fighting the future and embracing it.

Gino Gonnelli serves as Global Product Manager, Workflow & Automation, Clinical Immunology Division, for Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc.