Updated: Jun 29, 2020
Intuitive, automated, software-driven. The lab of the future empowers scientists for new discovery, and frees up their time to focus on more experiment design.
It all starts with labware
Labware is one of the most crucial components, because everything must rely on the consistency to function properly. Plates, tubes, vials, racks: consistency is important for every piece. Select a labware that you can trust. Select a vendor that is reliable! This will make your automation experience much less positive.Bar codes drive everything in the automated lab. For instruments to be able to function this way, bar code placement is essential.
For this reason, if you have a fancy automated workflow, but you are still manually applying bar codes to the labware that you want to use, then I do not envy you. This is one of the most crucial things to be consistent about, because a kink in a read could screw up a lot downstream, or even worse.. require manual intervention! We purchase all of our labware already bar coded by the vendor. In doing this, we never have serious issues with bar code reading.
A good indication of the consistency that a labware manufacturer will guarantee in their product can be found in the information documentation that they provide. Find the product on their website, and look for a technical specification sheet to show dimensions. If a company won’t readily share dimensions of their labware, that could be a warning sign of inconsistency.
Basically think of a giant vending machine, one that can be integrated directly to laboratory IT systems for quick access. This is the future of laboratory storage and retrieval. Chemical store rooms and manual compound library storage is quickly becoming antiquated, because the machines have a clear advantage here in using at integrated database to manage inventory. Every time something is accessed, there is a record. This is something that labs try hard to implement in manual storage systems, but these processes take a lot of effort and management.
Automation leverages bar coded labware for storage and retrieval of the samples and experiments they contain. Automated storage can occur at ambient temperature or significantly colder. Robotics storage systems have successfully brought systems down to -80 degrees Celsius, with some players even going as low as -160 degrees Celsius. Humans can’t access that cold of storage without exposing it to significantly higher temperatures, say by opening the freezer and fumbling around with samples. This can put other samples at risk, especially if somebody doesn’t properly close up the freezer when finished. Given this nature, you have to work fast when manually interacting with these cold environments, and that’s when mistakes happen. Robotics can selectively handle specific labware requested to present to humans, and greatly reduce risk of affecting all the other samples in the process.
Think of robotic syringes that move liquid very precisely between different containers. These mimic the pipetting that a scientist does at a lab bench, but they are much less likely to get confused or make a resulting error. Experiments these days deal with moving precise amounts of liquids into small wells of an experiment plate. When you are staring at 96 or 384 tiny reaction wells (let alone the next generation using 1536 well plates), dealing with precious reagent at variable volumes, it’s so easy for mistakes to happen.
These liquid handlers are commonly using consumable tips discarded to eliminate cross contamination between different samples, just like traditional bench top pipettes. There are also options for hands-off tip washing protocols that can reduce the carbon footprint of the system. Many choices exist on the market today, including options ranging from low to very high throughput. These vendors have demonstrated track records of reliably transferring liquids with an error rate of less than 5% CV (10%CV at sub 5uL volumes). This is basically less variability in performance than a human can do with a hand pipette unless they are focusing very intently. Although that precision tends to waiver at tiny volumes, vendors are looking to solve this in upcoming rounds of innovation to their tech.
If you can think of another laboratory device, chances are there is a company making an automation-friendly version already. This includes centrifuges, readers, plate sealers, incubators, etc. These can be used as stand-alone devices to contribute to a more manual workflow, or they can be integrated into larger systems using means of automated labware transport such as a robotic arm. These integrated systems can begin to create powerful hands-off workflows to churn out experiments, freeing up streamlining the workflows of the scientists and support roles if executed properly.
The hardware above is cool to play with, but the software interconnecting the lab is one of the most important things to consider. Using and maintaining these automation instruments (especially larger integrated systems) can be quite complex, and they need to be made as simple as possible by intuitive software. This idea of intuitive software interface is prolific throughout in the lab of the future, creating collaborative platforms for scientists to navigate to make research happen. This includes setting up experiments, viewing and analyzing data, and interacting with each other. Without an intuitive software to connect all the processes in the lab, different lab equipment and workflows will live on islands. There is no place for islands in the lab of the future, only seamless connectivity.
One of the most necessary ingredients of course in the lab is having the right people in place. This means boots on the ground operating, scientists who buy-in to the strategy to design experiments, and especially upper management buy-in and support these projects. Upper management support is crucial on any sort of implementation of new infrastructural technology, given the expertise and resources required to safely launch these complex projects.