It's no secret that automation can help labs to reduce or eliminate repetitive, mundane tasks, drive a higher volume and speed of testing, and improve testing accuracy and confidence. Additionally, automation can help to lower labor costs by putting highly trained staff members to better use, reducing their mental load and increasing walkaway time.
Due to increasing reimbursement pressures and the ongoing requests to do more with less, automation is rapidly moving from being an operational nicety to an organizational necessity. Already more than 30% of labs in North America, Europe, and Japan have adopted a significant degree of automation, the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC) notes1. Here's a look at areas where automation can help labs to boost their efficiency, as well as how lab leaders can think about introducing or expanding automation in their own labs.
One area where automation has proven especially useful is in the pre-analytic phase of testing, where tests are sorted, decapped, aliquoted, labeled, and so forth. This phase of the lab workflow tends to be heavily manual and thus prone to significant human error. For example, one study found2 that, prior to automation, one major medical center experienced as many as 15,000 manual monthly errors in this phase (8,000 sorting or routing errors; 7,000 labeling errors). After automating a number of processes, the group was able to reduce its routing errors by roughly 95% and labeling errors by more than 98%.
Automation solutions are specifically designed to resolve these pre-analytical issues, helping to automatically identify, sort, rack, and prepare clinical specimens for processing, while inspecting for labeling issues. Now, some manufacturers can even assess the quality and quantity of samples as part of pre-analytics. All of this greatly reduces the possibility for error and enhances the speed of processing. In some cases, test tubes are actually physically conveyed from pre-analytical processing to the next phase of analysis, helping to compound any efficiencies gained.
In other areas, automation has helped to dramatically increase the sheer volume of testing. Automation systems are now being designed to handle up to 100,000 units or more per day, and are dramatically increasing the number of units per FTE per day.
There are numerous other areas as well where automation is coming into play. Features like automated storage, refrigeration, and retrieval systems have been helping labs to maintain larger and more efficient biorepositories, the AACC notes3. Now, robotics are increasingly being used to automate physical tasks in the lab, including delivery of samples from different departments into the central lab. On the forward thinking edge of automation, Johns Hopkins University Medicine recently set a record with a 161 mile drone delivery of viable medical specimens4.
As a first step towards automation, labs should work to thoroughly evaluate their system-wide workflows—from specimen admission through final result reporting—in order to determine which processes may be ripe for initial (or increased) automation. As part of this task, labs should decide whether they want to automate single tasks (called task-targeted automation) or opt for total laboratory automation (TLA). In the former, labs would automate individual tasks, such as centrifuge operation, while in TLA, conveyor lines would link a number of automated processes together in a streamlined fashion.
As the AACC observes3, the difference between these two choices will ultimately boil down to cost: Task-targeted automation can be an affordable way to create smaller efficiencies throughout a lab, while TLA (generally designed for labs with higher volumes) can represent a much larger investment, but with more significant efficiencies. The AACC notes, however, that if a lab determines that roughly 80% of its processes could benefit from some degree of automation, the investment may likely be worth it. In any case, the processes which are most prone to manual error and unnecessary waste will benefit the most from automated techniques.
In the race to enhance the value of the lab, automation represents just one way that lab leaders can cut costs and improve efficiency. However, as automated techniques become table stakes for labs to remain competitive with their peers, they're likely to continue to become more popular over the coming years.