Latest improvements in laboratory automation
By Dr. Afsaneh Motamed-Khorasani

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A large number of laboratories are implementing automation methods to meet increasing demands and to improve the quality of work. Laboratory automation is also required to reduce the expenditure in work and the lack of experienced technical staff. This automation involves many different instruments, devices, software and methods to improve work efficiency and effectiveness.

One method of laboratory automation is automatic liquid handling, which plays major role in life science laboratories that deal with experiments such as gene sequencing, drug screening, protein crystallization and antibody testing. Automation is required to deliver small quantities of samples to vials in large numbers with accuracy. Electronic multichannel pipettes are considered as more accurate for liquid handling than ordinary pipettes.

Liquid dispensing technology comes in two types — contact dispensing and noncontact dispensing. Contact dispensing technology is cheap and reliable, but this might damage the dispensing tips and require tip replacement to avoid cross-contamination. Noncontact dispensing is based on the ink jet technology. Solenoid valve, piezoelectric, acoustic and thermal inkjet printing are examples for different noncontact dispensing technologies.

Robotic liquid handling has become predominant in recent years. Robotic work stations can perform with accuracy, precision and without fatigue. They are also designed to handle samples of high viscosity. The architecture of a robotic work station involves a control center, a washing station and sensors.

The control center controls the robot movement, the washing station cleans the dispensing tips, and sensors monitor the dispensing status of the sample. Different companies such as Matrix Technologies, Hudson, SOLO and ProLink Express have developed robotic technologies for high throughput multi-assay screening tasks.

High throughput screening is another important automated technology widely used for drug screening in pharmaceutical laboratories. Since its discovery in the mid-1990s, there has been a continuous improvement in technology and processes with respect to various laboratory needs. Microfluidics-based lab-on-chip systems are one of the high throughput sequencing methods for a fast and accurate detection of pathogens in soil, water and environment. This technology can also be used for point of care studies.

The adoption of automated methods in clinical laboratories makes the system highly efficient. Automation is used to replace the manual tasks for routine analysis of clinical samples and significantly improves the performance of a laboratory by reducing the turnaround time of the process.

Lam and Jacob in 2012 reported that the automation of a clinical biochemistry laboratory at Singapore General Hospital reduced the turnaround and sample processing times. Recent evidences have proved that automation improved the productivity only when well trained staff operates the instruments with standard operative procedures along with continuous monitoring.

There is a great demand for new automated technologies for emerging laboratory needs. The technology needs to be reliable, repetitive and robust, which can be done by continuous improvement. Multitasking technology is another important approach to improve the productivity of the laboratories. Technologists and laboratory workers must possess knowledge in computers, electronics and simulation modeling to understand the remarkable changes in the laboratory automation.

Dr. Afsaneh Motamed-Khorasani is a medical and scientific affairs specialist with a strong background in biomedical sciences, clinical trial/research and medical/regulatory writing/submission. She is the president and managing director of Neometrix Consulting Inc., which helps global pharmaceutical and medical device companies with their medical and regulatory writing and submissions as well as medical affairs.