September 15, 2023

Automating the Lab

Since the mid-1990s, laboratory automation has come a long way. Within the past several years, remaining competitive has also become necessary. Organizations are shifting to more fully automated labs to save time, improve performance and test reliability, and enhance patient safety and satisfaction.

In 2023, the global laboratory automation market is expected to reach $6.15 billion. The market is projected to grow at a CAGR of about 5.3% until it reaches $8.85 billion in 2030. Primary drivers behind the anticipated growth are tied to research and development. These include increased R&D investments in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals and the need for high reproducibility and accurate results.

However, the biggest hurdle for organizations is the high initial cost of automating processes. For example, one article cited the difficulties in automating cell culture experiments. While these experiments are known to be extremely time-consuming for laboratory technicians, it’s not always easy to justify the nearly $1 million price tag that accompanies automation.

From test tubes and software to frontline response, automation can change how labs operate, providing enhanced research and development processes, improved efficiency, and accelerated scientific advancements. It allows for high-throughput experimentation, data analysis, and sample handling, resulting in faster drug discovery, genetic research, and diagnostics.

Finally, automation can reduce the potential for human error and standardize workflows, leading to more reliable and reproducible results. Overall, automation is critical in revolutionizing the life sciences industry, ultimately benefiting healthcare and our understanding of biological processes.

The Evolution of Laboratory Automation 

Initially, automation was limited to basic tasks like liquid handling and sample processing. However, advancements in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and high-throughput technologies have transformed the lab automation landscape.

Here’s a timeline of lab automation over the years:

Early Stages (1980s-1990s) 

Automated liquid handling systems were introduced, improving precision and repeatability in laboratory processes. Researchers began using automated systems for tasks like PCR and ELISA.

Mid-Stages (2000s) 

Automation expanded to include high-throughput screening, genomics, and proteomics. Microarray technology allowed researchers to analyze thousands of genes simultaneously, and automated DNA sequencers revolutionized genetic research.

Recent Years (2010s-2020s) 

The integration of robotics and AI enabled more complex automation. Automated systems now handle advanced tasks like cell culture, drug screening, and lab maintenance. This led to increased efficiency, reduced costs, and faster drug development.

Current and Future Trends 

Automation is prevalent in single-cell analysis, CRISPR gene editing, and high-content imaging. Robotics and AI-driven algorithms have streamlined data analysis, enabling researchers to extract meaningful insights from vast datasets.

In addition, there’s a growing emphasis on decentralized and portable automation for point-of-care diagnostics and personalized medicine. As technology advances, we can expect even more sophisticated and comprehensive automation in life sciences, pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery and healthcare improvements.

Lab Automation Technologies in 2023 and Beyond 

Future-proofing the lab is all about walkaway automation in 2023 and beyond. Walkaway automation is a type of laboratory automation that allows for an experiment or process to be initiated and monitored by a researcher with little to no manual intervention required once started. In other words, the researcher can “walk away” from the equipment or experiment and attend to other matters. At the same time, the automation system handles the designated tasks, providing an optimized workflow that emphasizes research and patient-focused solutions.

This type of automation is especially valuable for tasks that involve long processing times, repetitive steps, or that need to run overnight or for extended periods. It’s commonly used for high-throughput screening, drug discovery, genomics, and other applications where efficiency and time savings are crucial.

Lab automation technologies include:

  • Incubators
  • Titrators
  • Plate readers
  • Pipetting systems
  • Cell imaging
  • DNA sequencers
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) systems
  • Nucleic acid extraction systems
  • Liquid handling systems
  • Integrated instruments
  • Microscopy and imaging systems
  • Chromatography systems
  • High-Throughput Screening (HTS) systems
  • Software (e.g., Laboratory Information Management Systems or LIMS)
  • Autosamplers
  • Robotic workstations

Automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) have also become commonplace in labs to reduce costs, increase accountability, enhance security, prevent inventory shrinkage, and allow for heightened visibility to locate missing items. These systems provide high-density, robotic storage and retrieval of samples, streamlining biobanking, and sample management. In addition, ASRS integrates seamlessly with other lab equipment and software.

Going Virtual: Remote Labs Gain Popularity 

Forbes reported that remote work is picking up speed following the COVID-19 pandemic. One study shows that 25% of all professional jobs in North America went remote in 2022, and the trend is expected to continue gaining momentum throughout 2023. Most of the world began realizing the benefits of remote work in 2021, with 90% of full-time remote workers saying they were just as productive or more productive in their new homebound capacity. In 2022, one report revealed that 44% of full-time workers globally had worked remotely for at least part of their role or time in their position.

Still, scientists have capitalized on the advantages of a remote workplace since pre-pandemic, and this penchant for convenience has only increased since the lockdown, with three out of four workers preferring to work from home. Remote and flexible work arrangements are becoming popular in scientific research, allowing workers to maximize their potential via an improved work-life balance.

Survey results show that workers worldwide often favor remote or flexible work arrangements, with 89% believing flexible working should be the norm and 54% admitting they would search for a new job to achieve an enhanced work-life balance. Additionally, companies around the globe are prone to jump on board with that line of thinking, with 75% introducing policies adopting the same logic. Proving the possible gains of such work arrangements, 83% of companies reported attaining improved productivity following the policy changes.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is also leveraging the recent movement, encouraging sponsors of trials to consider alternatives to on-site monitoring, which has proven to be one of the most costly components of bringing a new product to the market.

Automation plays a significant role in making virtual labs a reality, offering transformative solutions to conducting experiments and research from a distance. Researchers can remotely operate lab equipment, manipulate samples, and collect real-time data by integrating robotic systems, AI-driven analysis, and remote-control interfaces. This expands access to scientific facilities and enables collaboration across geographical boundaries.

Remote life sciences labs powered by automation also allow scientists to conduct experiments in hazardous environments without physical presence, reducing risks. In addition, automation enhances data accuracy by reducing human error and variability.

However, challenges such as establishing secure and reliable connections, ensuring proper training for remote operators, and addressing technical glitches must be overcome for this vision to be fully realized. Despite these challenges, the prospect of remote life sciences labs driven by automation holds promise for democratizing research, accelerating discoveries, and making scientific endeavors more efficient and accessible.

How to Automate 

Automation has been around for decades, but it’s become a necessity in recent years as the population ages and testing volumes increase at a rate of 5-10% in the U.S. annually. Similar increases can be seen worldwide, propelling the interest in laboratory automation.

With that being said, it’s okay to start small and inexpensive. Automating tasks or processes that provide easy wins without breaking the bank is wise. Choosing automation that can be compounded and linked seamlessly is best.

Here are steps to automating the lab:

  • Define Goals: Identify processes that are repetitive, time-consuming, or require precision.
  • Select Equipment: Choose automation equipment like robotic arms, pipetting systems, sensors, and data loggers based on the lab’s needs.
  • Integration: Integrate chosen equipment with existing lab instruments and systems, including software development and hardware connections.
  • Software Development: Develop or configure software to control automated processes using established platforms or custom software solutions, including programming scripts.
  • Workflow Design: Design the automated workflow, considering factors like sample handling, data acquisition, error handling, and validation.
  • Testing and Validation: Rigorously test the automated system to ensure it operates accurately, reliably, and consistently, and validate its performance against manual processes.
  • Data Management: Implement a system to store, manage, and analyze data generated by automated processes.
  • Training: Train lab personnel to operate and maintain automated systems, troubleshoot, and address minor issues.
  • Maintenance: Regularly maintain and calibrate automated equipment to ensure optimal performance and have a plan for addressing technical failures promptly.
  • Continuous Improvement: Monitor automated processes for efficiency and accuracy and implement necessary updates and improvements.

Oxford Can Help 

Automating a lab is a complex process that requires careful planning, technical expertise, and resources. Oxford can help. The world is moving forward, and Oxford has the knowledge and experience to move businesses forward alongside it. We know the ins and outs of automation and how it can best be applied in the lab. We have a proven track record of assisting life sciences companies to achieve desired project results within tight timelines.

Hiring Oxford for your lab automation efforts can give your business a strategic advantage in effectively implementing and optimizing automated systems. We tailor our approach to align with each company’s goals. However, one thing that remains the same from one project to the next is our guarantee to provide The Right Talent. Right Now.

You can be assured that we will be with you every step of the way as you embrace the future with a fully automated lab.

Quality. Commitment.

Whether you want to advance your business or your career, Oxford is here to help. With nearly 40 years’ experience, we know that a great partnership is key to success. Start a conversation today.