Top tips when implementing a new automation workflow
Planning to implement a new automation workflow in your lab? Here are some tips to ensure a fast, smooth implementation.
Preparing for automation of your workflow can help you save plenty of time in choosing the right robot and using it efficiently. Robots are not magical creatures. The assay that is being evaluated for automation must work manually, ie, on the bench. If it doesn’t, it is highly unlikely that automation alone will solve the problems with the protocol. If the plan is to miniaturise an assay with automation, it’s important to test that it works. Once the goal is clearly defined, automating that becomes straightforward and easy to verify. And once the simple version is automated, the user has successfully achieved the goal, or is well placed to turn that feasibility step into a high-throughput reality.
Robots can’t replace people (just yet). Good automation requires the brains, lab expertise and problem-solving skills of a human being with a technical mindset. Appoint a person with aptitude, enthusiasm, problem-solving skills, a strong assay understanding and interest in software/instrumentation in the role of automation specialist. The ideal candidate will see this as a career step. It doesn’t mean that they will be operating robots all their life; this responsibility could help them get promoted to the post of a lab manager or become responsible for a discovery project.
It’s important to remember that it will take time to get the first run right. There will be plenty of opportunities for optimisation, minor adjustments, as well as major improvements. Implementing miniaturisation of the assay can lead to significant savings on costly reagents, resulting in a return on investment beyond time and robust reproducibility. By allocating time for this in the project, the robot can provide significant leverage for assay standardisation across different sites.
The robot may have features that could help comply with industry regulations and opportunities, such as audit trails and electronic signatures. Documentation of processes can help meet quality standards. Understand which norms impact using an instrument in a compliant fashion (or find the person in your company who understands) and assess in advance of purchasing how automation fits in your processes. Talk to the vendor about the features of the instrument, and identify experts within your organisation who understand what is essential in regards to automation.
Return on investment
Making a capital equipment investment, especially if it’s your company’s first shiny new robot, is a sign of success and can excite everyone, including top management. Those who aren’t actively involved in planning may expect the ROI to start on day one after the installation. That’s rarely the case. Ensure that everyone understands the implementation of the instrument will be done with purpose, systematically and successfully. Show them your game plan — it creates confidence in your approach. The ROI is real and significant, but it is often measured over years, not days. Keeping expectations realistic may be the key to success.
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