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By Martin Braendle

Robotics and automation have become essential to the future plans of drug discovery and clinical diagnostic companies. Executives are looking to increase productivity and reduce costs, and automation fits the bill in every respect.

Robotics and automation have become essential to labs.

Robotics and automation have become essential to laboratories. 

Benefits of lab automation

The obvious advantage automation has over human intervention is that there is less likelihood of error. This has led to the increasing acceptance of automation in life science labs, where the cost of error can be huge. Even fairly low error rates can have a disproportionate effect as they are magnified downstream. Removing the human error creates a greater consistency, leading to better quality results and cost savings at every stage.

Many life science labs have also noticed that far from reducing the impact of their ‘human’ staff, introducing robotics generates a greater contribution. Research scientists are freed up to concentrate on their core skills, leading to a more creative and considered method of working.

Proving the benefits of lab automation

Basic lab procedures are already automated. For instance, dispensing into multiwell plates for assays or applying reagents in an immunoassay. Now, however, the drug discovery units in many pharmaceutical companies are looking to automate every phase of their research. This calls for far more complex automation but can bring huge efficiency benefits.

A study between 2011–2013 tracked the cost of labor and reagents for fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) testing in a routine, high-volume pathology and cytogenetics laboratory in Treviso, Italy. This procedure was then automated and the results compared. Significant cost and time saving were achieved when more than six FISH tests were run per week. At 12 FISH assays per week, a total cost reduction of around 55% was observed. At 46 FISH specimens per week, this went up to 89%.

Enabling better quality research

But the economics of robotics includes far more than just cost and time benefits. The ability of automation to carry out processes faster and more accurately is a driver behind some areas of research. Sequencing DNA fragments involves a huge number of repetitive steps on a vast number of samples. Automating this procedure enables every step to be carried out to the same level of accuracy, 24/7. Even the most conscientious team of technicians couldn’t offer the same consistency. Automation has increased the speed and repeatability of this work, as well as cutting costs considerably.

DNA sequencing and genomics has become a massive growth area, helped in no small measure by automation – cutting the time to market and allowing those companies at the leading edge to steal a march on their competitors.

Automation robotics spreading across scientific disciplines

As processes upstream, like primary screening, are being automated this is pushing those further downstream, like secondary screening assays, to accept automation. Robotics is also spreading from genomics to proteomics.

"High throughput mass spectrometers cannot be fed with sufficient samples of the required quality," says Gaby Bachofner of Tecan. "New solutions to improve reproducibility, increase throughput, and boost sensitivity for the separation and purification of proteomes are badly needed. Over the past years, pharmaceutical research has invested heavily in high throughput screening. That has created new bottlenecks downstream in cell-based assays. New workstations to run these complex assays at high throughput and affordable cost are now hitting the market.

Data management: The next obstacle

These technological solutions are having a knock-on effect down the pipeline. Automation in these areas is creating a mountain of data far quicker than ever before. That data needs to be analyzed and to get over this bottleneck highly efficient data handling is becoming increasingly important.

This next obstacle will be overcome and, as those companies who led the charge towards robotics have found, those in the vanguard will reap significant economic advantage.

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About the author

Martin Braendle

Martin Braendle has a broad background in communications, holistically covering all areas from investor to product communications. He is passionate about the life sciences industry and the trained economist can’t think of any better motivation for work than at the end of the day helping people and improving health care. After helping biotech companies to develop new drugs for many years, he joined Tecan in 2008. At Tecan Group, Martin is a VP and member of the Extended Management Board.