The Opportunities and Challenges behind Lab Automation
In a market where patent expiries and loss of exclusivity are driving cumulative losses of £209 billion, laboratory automation has the potential to play a critical role in bridging pipeline gaps, offering the wider biopharma industry an estimated 81% increase in revenue growth.
In the laboratory, robotics and software offer researchers and laboratory technicians more streamlined and accurate processes that have the potential to transform and accelerate drug discovery, helping leaders overcome pipeline gaps and power business continuity.
Here we discuss the challenges, benefits and emerging opportunities automation in the lab offers. We’re in conversation with Gamila Ersan, Laboratory Technician at Synergy, working as part of a deployed team within the leading pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk Research Centre Oxford.
What is lab automation?
Lab automation refers to laboratory equipment, software or instruments that perform laboratory tasks with a low amount of manual interaction from staff. Officially, there are seven formal automation levels ranging across automatic hand tools (handheld dispensers), through to software (inventory software) and automatic machines capable of solving deviations (automated cell culture systems).
Research indicates that lab automation is a largely untapped resource that could transform research laboratories - 89% of studies featuring a manual protocol have an automated alternative.
Gamila Ersan explains how automation impacts her role at Novo Nordisk Research Centre Oxford, “Our team benefits from a range of instruments including liquid dispensers, tissue culture hoods that enable us to seed cells, change media, wash cell plates, and even split and image cells, enabling us to save valuable time.” Gamila describes how robotics also plays an important role in her everyday work, “Robots offer our team the manpower of five scientists in one. Instead of spending time doing assays and making technical repeats over the course of a week, the robot takes on that workload under the supervision of just one technician, enabling the rest of the team to go on to other experiments.”
“Other robots like plate-washers mean we can effectively and accurately wash cell plates in just 30 seconds, rather than a technician spending five minutes – returning time back to experiments in the wider lab”.
Inventory software is another automation tool used to benefit workflows and improve efficiency in the lab. Gamila says, “The inventory software not only saves time; it saves physical space. When you’re able to categorise your stock and dispose of unneeded or out-of-date products, you’re left with a clearer workspace where more experiments can happen. In terms of time, searching for inventory on the computer rather than asking other technicians creates more streamlined and efficient processes and workflows across the entire team”.
What are the challenges of automation in the lab
Despite the benefits and practical efficiencies automation offers, technologies are often new, meaning that time to implement and understand the caveats of using automated tools can be an initial constraint to efficacy.
Additionally, knowledge gaps and a lack of resources can also exacerbate resources in smaller laboratory teams. This is where employees like Gamila, who are insourced onsite can play an important role. Gamila explains, “While automation projects can directly solve lab challenges, they take time to be implemented. We invested in lab notebook software to log inventory and experiments as we were facing inventory shortages and wanted to find a way to achieve total transparency. However, going through all stock and formatting it on the software means being very precise and careful, making it a time-consuming and challenging task.”
“My work at the moment involves supporting this process, enabling Novo Nordisk Research Centre Oxford to develop the foundation of accurate data they need to support this new, innovative system to improve operations.”
Gamila explains how this project, in the long term, will help to streamline drug development, “Having a clear record of inventory and past experiments will affect the day-to-day of lab operations, helping to streamline work. It will also equip future scientists at the organisation with a timeless resource to understand how past experiments functioned, enabling continuous optimisation and improvement”.
While robotics can play a crucial role in returning time back to scientists in the lab when they break down or experience software issues, they can delay the progress of experiments. Gamila explains how Novo Nordisk Research Centre Oxford is working to overcome this challenge, “Novo Nordisk Research Centre Oxford are actively training scientists in the lab to develop the expertise and knowledge required to become machine ‘Super Users’. This will enable them to intercept issues before engineers arrive, helping to save time and limit the cost of outsourced support”.
Key drivers behind the increase in laboratory automation
Laboratory automation’s growing precedence is a testament to the popularity of the Fourth Revolution’s digitalisation of the wider pharmaceutical industry.
Gamila says that one of the key drivers behind this popularity is globalisation and the ongoing requirement to be interconnected, “Globalisation is the most critical driver behind automation in the lab. The pharmaceutical industry operates out of a global network, and to stay aligned and on track, data needs to be communicated quickly and securely. Automation in the lab meets a growing requirement for accurate data, fast, while requiring less manpower”.
Competition for market share in the laboratory automation space is another key factor behind the industry’s growing demand. Gamila explains, “Software and robotics organisations targeting the laboratory space are all competing for market share in the same space, meaning that ongoing innovation to stay competitive and relevant is rampant. We had a robot pitched to us recently that was incredible but lacked the sensitivity we needed for certain cell types – this feedback was taken on by the developers who are working on creating a more intuitive machine. This ongoing innovation means that lab automation technology is increasingly important to adopt in order to keep pace with other laboratories, and to benefit from more effective and efficient techniques.”
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