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Does Lab Automation Take Scientist Jobs?

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

We all here about how automation is taking away jobs in industries around the world. In pharmaceutical R&D settings, it’ may be an unfortunate truth that we can also expect lab automation to replace some jobs. However, I would argue that lab automation is creating more jobs than replacing, so we have an overall net gain here. This is because the technology is actually improving productivity of more and more labs. The fear of adaptation to new tech will not serve scientists well, and it will not deter the crucial role that these technologies play in the lab.

Research is about precision, and experiments these days typically require highly engineered instruments anyway. Since automation allows for higher throughput of more precise work, it's clear that automation belongs in pharmaceutical R&D labs. Although it is always tough to see roles get phased out in any case, working in an industry that require this precision means we just have to accept the unfortunate consequences.

The types of jobs in question in this setting involve carrying out repetitive labor at the lab bench, in the store room, etc. Often these support roles which are directly associated with making the scientist’s life easier. The scientists who are designing and running experiments will still be needed to design experiments and turn the data into something useful.

The automation is a tool that helps them do this most effectively, but the instruments don’t run themselves. Often these support roles exist because the scientists are too busy, so in many cases that doesn't change when automation enters labs. In fact, support roles become more crucial than ever.

Automation is stepping in to handle these more manual tasks, and this creates roles such as automation operators and engineers. Jobs are created in the supply chain as automation vendors hire scientists to sell more platforms. As more and more labs continue to understand the value in this tech and expand their capabilities, they face a greater need to bring automation specialists of their own in house to develop and maintain these research technologies. Rather than being afraid of being replaced, look for ways to embrace automation technology and empower yourself to adapt and harness automation.

Through embracing of automation, you can work towards making yourself invaluable to pharmaceutical labs rather than becoming at risk to be phased out. I know this because I have lived it. I'm trained to work at the lab bench, but as soon as I hit the biotech industry after college I quickly saw the high value in automating my tedious bench work. So I learned how to manage projects as a scientist, and used that as a way to get my foot in the door managing projects for a lab robotics manufacturer. There I learned concepts of programming, and made my way into developing user automation applications for labs. Now I'm back in the biotech industry, running automation projects to develop the lab of the future and solving workflow problems with custom software solutions.

Scientists and lab techs who become familiar with operating and servicing these common automation instruments are needed to keep labs running, especially while people generally are still intimidated by them. Scientists with programming skill sets can control the essential instruments, another invaluable skill that brings job security and growth.

Computer programming is not just for software engineers anymore and learning the basic scripting is useful as a scientist to control these instruments that help the entire lab carry out experiments. This sort of skill set will make scientists very valuable in future labs. for the time being, learning

Another important thing about this is that management understands how these instruments contribute to the research process, so that automation projects can be properly managed for lab development and research with appropriate support. Managers need to be paying attention to technologies that can help increase productivity in their team, but not go too far as to introduce unnecessary risks.

Fortunately, managers don't need to know as much how they work, as long as they have solid teams that do. They need to have the vision, but not the technical capability. Scientists need to understand how automation projections work too, so that they can act as effective project managers to make sure those projects don't end up leading to both a cash fire, fueling the hot water that management is brewing for them.

Make the decision to learn and master disciplines relating to core technology in the lab of the future not only to protect your career, but to advance it in a competitive way before everyone catches on.

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