Streamlining Lab Operations with Software Automation
Using LIMS and no-code solutions can unlock opportunities for efficiency.
Robots and machinery often come first to mind when thinking of lab automation, and for good reason—they free up scientists to focus on higher-value work while reducing cost, turnaround time, and margin for error. However, investing in this hardware can be expensive and challenging. The robots alone cost tens of thousands of dollars, and each lab will face unique challenges in integrating them into its workflow, which will add to overheads.
But the barrier to entry may be lower than you think. Software automation—using software to automatically analyze, manipulate, and transfer data—can be an effective precursory step to implementing full-fledged automated robots. Software automation cuts costs, saves time, allows lab staff to learn how to identify opportunities for optimization, and minimizes disruption to workflows.
How Software Automation Can Prepare Lab Staff for Hardware Automation
Regardless of platform, the principles of automation remain the same:
Automation serves to perform repetitive tasks while maintaining (or elevating) quality, freeing people to work on the tasks that require critical thinking and creativity.
The challenges of automation lie with identifying opportunities for automation in the lab workflow, refining standard processes enough that machines can independently execute them, and smoothly integrating automated solutions while minimizing the potential for adverse effects downstream.
So, where does one start with automation?
Identifying Opportunities for Automation
Identifying a process ripe for automation may seem straightforward, but there are important variables to consider.1 The process begins with spotting bottlenecks—processes whose time expense is disproportionate to their value or that prevent other processes from starting sooner. However, few processes exist in a vacuum. Changing one process without careful planning can often have adverse effects, such as compromising product quality or even causing new bottlenecks. Thus, it is vital to consider why a process is done a certain way before changing it—though it may seem intuitive to execute a task differently, it’s possible that changing the process will cost more than it would save.
As such, it is important for lab staff to work together to identify suitable opportunities for automation. Those in leadership roles, such as lab managers or directors, will have a birds-eye view of the lab. They will be able to see how various processes flow together and affect each other. Meanwhile, bench staff who perform routine tasks will likely have the best ideas for streamlining their specific tasks, since they are most familiar with those processes. By collaborating, bench staff and lab managers can develop solutions that incorporate bench staff ideas and leverage the lab manager’s view to ensure those ideas won’t have adverse effects downstream.
So, what might an opportunity for automation look like? Are you or any of your staff routinely performing tasks that require no critical thought? Oftentimes these tasks involve analysis, logistics, and data transfer—tasks that certain lab software solutions can address automatically.
The LIMS: The Cornerstone of Lab Software Automation
Laboratory information management systems (LIMS) are designed to allow you to easily manage samples passing through your lab and their associated data.2 To that end, a LIMS facilitates communication between lab equipment and data management systems, allowing them to automate report generation, maintenance checks, calibration, inventory replenishment, and more.
With these capabilities, a LIMS can act as a hub for your lab’s automated software solutions. Rather than manually exporting experiment results to a USB drive, sending them to other stakeholders via email, and recording them in the electronic laboratory notebook (ELN), you can configure your LIMS to automatically collate that data and upload the report to the ELN, where it’s readily accessible by others.
A LIMS can also act as a bridge between other systems, such as lab equipment and inventory management software. When the equipment runs out of consumables, the LIMS can automatically update the associated value in the inventory management software to indicate that the consumables need to be replenished.
While a LIMS is highly adaptable, it may not always facilitate automation in the way that your application requires. However, there exist other solutions that offer more flexibility: No-code digital automation platforms.
Beyond the LIMS: No-Code Solutions to Streamline Lab Ops
Many diagnostic labs could benefit from digital solutions that adapt to their unique workflow. However, they likely won’t have the in-house talent or budget for external contractors to code these solutions manually. No-code platforms can fill that gap.
No-code software allows users to create automated workflows and new programs as well as integrate existing software with others without needing custom programming. They instead use visual logic components, such as decision trees that allow users to select preprogrammed actions in specific programs and apply conditions to them, to realize the behavior that the user has in mind. These platforms allow virtually any user—not just software engineers—to implement solutions quickly and easily while minimizing the maintenance requirements required of full-code solutions.
Some lab equipment vendors have embraced popular no-code platforms. TECAN, for instance, released over a dozen modules on the popular digital automation platform IFTTT (If This Then That) that enable the user to receive text messages when a TECAN liquid handler has finished its run, be alerted of errors, receive emails when an instrument state has changed, and more. Similarly, Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Core Connect software for lab data management supports IFTTT, along with other automation platforms like Zapier, so users can build custom integrations that enable Core Connect to communicate with other programs.
Potential Caveats of Software Automation
While software automation can be a huge boon to a diagnostic lab’s efficiency and consistency, there are some significant drawbacks to consider.
First, the platform that you believe would best suit your lab—whether it be a LIMS or no-code platform—may not be certified to relay confidential information, such as HIPAA-protected patient information, diagnostic data, etc. Before revamping processes to run on a new platform, make sure that it will accommodate your organization’s privacy requirements.
Additionally, an increasing number of lab data management and no-code programs are hosted in the cloud—that is, someone else’s computer. While convenient for the user as they don’t have to handle the infrastructure required for hosting web-based services, the user is also completely reliant on the company that produces the platform—and there’s no guarantee that the services will stay online forever. As such, in the event that a company shutters its services, it is vital that staff do not become dependent on your organization’s automated software workflows and know how to execute the processes manually.
Finally, as virtually all cloud-based LIMS and no-code solutions follow the software-as-a-service (SaaS) business model, there will be recurring fees. These prices must be accounted for in the initial pitch to invest in this software.
While lab robots yield great benefit, the barrier to accessing them is quite high. Streamlining lab operations with software can yield similar benefits, albeit to a lesser extent, while being much more accessible.
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