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Industry Insights

Updated on 28 feb 202410 min read

Lab automation: towards an era of scientific discoveries and innovations

Life ScienceLaboratory AutomationuMobileLab
TIM OTTO
Head of Marketing, Industrial Robots

The future of life sciences is inherently connected to technological innovation. At the heart of this transition lies laboratory automation. At URG, we recognise the importance of implementing advanced technologies in medical and industrial laboratories not only to enhance efficiency and accuracy but also to address the challenges faced by the life sciences sector. Our vision and approach, deeply rooted in this perspective, aim to transform the laboratory experience through innovative and accessible robotic solutions.

Laboratory automation as a concept transcends the mere mechanisation of repetitive tasks. It encompasses the integration of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and data analytics. Moreover, it is the mobility provided by these new solutions that endow them with their total value. Whether it concerns the variety of actions that robots can now perform or the fact that they move through space with ease, the barriers of robotics diminish with every new advancement. The goal is to create laboratory automation that is not only more efficient but also more intuitive and adaptable to the needs of scientific research while the lab environment stays as it is. This transformation is not just a matter of convenience; it's a necessity to remain competitive in a sector where the accuracy of results and the efficiency of processes are paramount.

Today, let's explore the challenges facing medical and industrial laboratories. Let's examine how automation, particularly the use of mobile and stationary robots, can address these issues. Finally, let's discuss the impact of these technologies on the future of life sciences and their ethical implications.

Article Highlights

  1. Pain points in medical and industrial laboratories
  2. Role of mobile and stationary robots in improving laboratories
  3. The financial impact of lab automation: investment and returns
  4. Towards an era of responsible innovation: automation, sustainability, and Ethics in Laboratories
  5. Future perspectives of laboratory automation: the rise of smart robotics

Pain points in medical and industrial laboratories

Lack of efficiency and precision

Today's medical and industrial laboratories face multiple challenges, particularly in terms of efficiency and precision. A major obstacle is the maintenance of instruments and the associated downtime, which severely affects laboratory productivity. Indeed, 73% of laboratory managers cite instrument maintenance and downtime as their main challenge, according to a report by Technology Networks​​. These interruptions not only delay research processes but also risk compromising the quality of the results obtained.

Moreover, the complexity of testing requirements, cited by 63% of laboratory managers, and the time-consuming preparation of samples, highlighted by 60%, exacerbate the challenges of precision and efficiency, as Technology Networks points out. These factors raise questions about the laboratories' ability to maintain high standards while meeting current demands in research and development.

Data management issues

Another major pain point in current laboratories is data management. The need for effective data management is illustrated by the fact that 50% of laboratory managers consider data management a major challenge. Laboratories are overwhelmed with huge volumes of data, the collection, storage, and analysis of which are extremely time-consuming and prone to human errors. This data overload presents unique challenges in terms of storage capacity, data security, and ease of access for further analysis and research.

The complexity and volume of data produced require sophisticated solutions that can not only store large amounts of data but also enable fast and efficient retrieval and analysis. Furthermore, consider the simplicity offered in terms of synchronisation between laboratory software and hardware. More than usage, it is the access to data and their cataloguing that are enhanced, bringing new value to each analysis, result, and observation.

Time and labour constraints

Today's laboratories also face severe time and labour constraints. Shortages in the healthcare industry profoundly impact patient care, as indicated by treatment delays and the inability to provide optimal medications or treatments due to staff shortages. These constraints put additional pressure on laboratories to operate more efficiently with fewer resources while maintaining the high standards necessary to ensure the reliability and precision of results.

In summary, today's medical and industrial laboratories are faced with a series of complex challenges that require innovative and effective solutions. Laboratory automation, particularly the use of mobile and stationary robots, appears as a promising solution to overcome these difficulties.

Role of mobile and stationary robots in improving laboratories

Enhancing efficiency and precision

Automation, particularly the use of mobile and stationary robots, plays a leading role in increasing efficiency and precision in laboratories. Adopting an 'automation-first' approach promotes the acceleration of drug discovery processes, as indicated by a report from Labcompare​​. This approach not only improves the reproducibility and scalability of experiments but also minimises human errors. It thus ensures precise results and optimal use of resources. Forecasts suggest that a significant portion of work will be delegated to robots by 2024, allowing researchers to focus more on discovery rather than experimental processes.

Robotics in life sciences, especially liquid handling systems, integrate with large language model (LLM) technology, where researchers can control robots using natural language commands. This simplifies access to automation for a greater number of laboratories, making the technology more accessible and affordable.

Optimising data management

The integration of automation and artificial intelligence in laboratories radically transforms how data is managed. As highlighted by Clarkston Consulting, the increasing use of AI, machine learning, and data analytics in life science laboratories helps to reduce simple, repetitive, and time-consuming tasks. More importantly, it allows laboratories to focus on high-quality outcomes. This optimisation of data management processes enables quick and efficient data retrieval and analysis. This is a central notion when the precision of information has a vital impact, as is the case in the scientific sector.

Furthermore, the adoption of cloud-based solutions facilitates the integration of artificial intelligence into existing laboratory operations. This transforms data from instrumental silos into aggregated, accessible, and analysable datasets by remote teams.

Reducing temporal pressure and labour needs

Robotics and automation offer significant solutions to time and labour constraints in laboratories. By automating repetitive and time-consuming tasks, laboratories can achieve considerable savings in terms of time and human resources. Technologies such as liquid handling and microfluidic devices allowed for high-level automation, resulting in better productivity and reduced need for specialised labour for these tasks.

Moreover, the evolution towards remote laboratories, such as biofoundries and cloud laboratories, represents a significant advancement. These remote research spaces allow scientists to conduct automated experiments without the need for specialised on-site technologies, resulting in greater flexibility and accessibility to laboratory automation.

The financial impact of lab automation: investment and returns

Cost of Implementation

Implementing laboratory automation requires significant upfront investment. This expenditure includes not only the acquisition of advanced robotic systems and AI technologies but also encompasses the integration of these technologies into existing laboratory infrastructures and workflows. According to a study in Clinical Chemistry, laboratories must consider various factors such as space requirements, performance capabilities, analytical criteria, maintenance demands, and total cost before selecting an automation system. These considerations are crucial to ensure that the selected system aligns with the laboratory's specific operational needs and constraints, optimising the value of the investment. This strategic planning is essential for maximising the return on investment while minimising disruption to ongoing laboratory operations.

Efficiency and productivity gains

A key financial benefit of laboratory automation is the substantial increase in efficiency and productivity. Automation of core laboratory systems has been shown to reduce manual processing steps by up to 86%, as reported in Clinical Chemistry. This reduction in manual labour not only enhances operational efficiency but also significantly lowers labour costs. Moreover, as highlighted by Mayo Clinic Laboratories, some laboratories have experienced a ten-fold increase in daily work volumes since implementing automation.​ This scalability directly impacts the laboratory's capacity to manage larger workloads, thereby contributing to heightened productivity and efficiency. Such gains are particularly beneficial in high-throughput environments where handling large volumes of samples and data is routine, ensuring the laboratory's ability to meet growing demands in medical and scientific research.

#SuccessStory - URG and solution-partner Siemens Healthineers

Robotic revolution: Siemens Healthineers & Asklepios

In 2021, Siemens Healthineers transformed the Asklepios Klinik Bad Oldesloe by installing the first autonomous robotic laboratory. Operating 24/7, this innovative system not only enhanced patient safety but also significantly reduced the staff's workload. This case exemplifies the economic value and increased operational efficiency of smart laboratory automation.

Enhanced quality and cost reduction

Automation also leads to improvements in data quality and precision, reducing human error and enhancing the reliability of laboratory results. This is especially valuable in fields requiring high accuracy, such as genomics and drug discovery. The increased reliability and precision translate into a better reputation for the laboratory, potentially attracting more business and research opportunities. In the long term, automation results in significant operational cost savings. By streamlining workflows, reducing waste, and minimising the need for specialised manual labour, automation lowers ongoing operational costs and decreases the cost per test. Over time, this leads to a more economically viable high-volume screening and analysis, enhancing the laboratory's financial sustainability and contributing to a substantial return on the initial investment.

Towards an era of responsible innovation: automation, sustainability, and Ethics in Laboratories

Robotics applications in laboratories

Robotics in scientific laboratories has proven to be a key driver of innovation and efficiency. One of the most significant applications is the reduction in time and costs in specific processes. For example, in the field of immunohistochemistry (IHC), automation has enabled the processing of a greater number of slides in less time while significantly reducing costs. A study demonstrated that automation in IHC reduces the total processing time by 15.22%, from 460 minutes to 390 minutes for 48 slides. It’s noteworthy that this time saving reduces the cost per slide by 37.27%, from 12.26 € to 7.69 €​​.

These improvements are not limited to cost and time reduction; they also extend to increased accuracy and reduced human errors, crucial elements in sensitive fields such as genomics and drug discovery. Laboratory robotics thus offers a safer and more reliable approach for researchers, particularly when handling hazardous substances or analysing complex data.

#SuccessStory - URG and solution-partner Siemens Healthineers

Robotic Breakthrough at Elbland-Klinikum: A New Era of Efficiency

In 2023, Elbland-Klinikum Meißen showcased the positive impact of robotics in labs facing staff shortages. Their feasibility study on using robots for pre-analytical tasks revealed a notable improvement in laboratory efficiency. This example highlights how robots can maintain high-quality operations even in smaller labs while alleviating the workload for personnel.

Sustainable development and automation

The adoption of sustainable practices in laboratories is becoming an increasingly prioritised goal, especially in the current context marked by inflation and awareness of the negative environmental impacts of certain laboratory activities. According to a recent study by LabTwin, in 2023, laboratories are actively seeking to improve their efficiency and sustainability through digitisation. This shift towards digitisation facilitates the management of operations, the reduction of waste, and the optimised use of laboratory equipment.

Digitisation is at the forefront of this development, allowing laboratories to streamline their workflows and reduce waste by providing real-time insights into operational inefficiencies. With the growing availability of data on laboratory operations, organisations can identify areas of resource wastage or inefficient processes. Laboratories use these data to make changes that reduce waste, save time, lower costs, and improve efficiency.

Future perspectives of laboratory automation: the rise of smart robotics

Adopting the 'automation-first' approach in biopharmaceuticals

Within the biopharmaceutical industry, a quiet evolution is taking shape, redefining the contours of research and development. The adoption of the 'automation-first' approach is emerging as a given, not merely as an alternative but as a true work philosophy. From renowned academies to reagent manufacturers, this new mindset promises to accelerate drug discovery by enhancing efficiency and significantly reducing the costs and time inherent in developing new treatments.

In this context, automation transcends the mere mechanisation of tasks; it becomes the beating heart of laboratories. It ensures flawless reproducibility and optimised scalability of experiments while minimising human errors. This results in outcomes of unparalleled accuracy and optimal resource utilisation. At the dawn of 2024, a significant portion of work will be delegated to robots. This decision should allow researchers to focus more on scientific discovery rather than experimental processes.

Expect that laboratories embracing this 'automation-first' philosophy will no longer be just spaces of experimentation but cradles of innovation where technology and humanity together weave the future of medicine.

Robotics and automation trends for 2024

As we approach 2024, laboratories are transforming into true epicentres of innovation through the integration of advanced robotic technologies. Soft robotics, for example, is emerging as an innovative solution. It opens new perspectives in the biotechnology, food, and agriculture sectors. This technology, combined with new materials, allows robots to perform more complex logistical tasks, with an impressive compound annual growth rate of 35.1% between 2022 and 2027​​.

In these research spaces, we no longer find traditional robots with rigid and predictable movements but machines equipped with unprecedented flexibility and adaptability. These technological advances are not limited to improving existing performance; they open the door to new ways of conceiving work in laboratories, making processes smoother, more intuitive, and significantly more efficient.

The transformation doesn't stop there. Mobile robots, already well-established in warehouses, are beginning to explore more varied terrains. In environments like airports, these mobile robots venture beyond structured spaces to deliver goods to passengers in terminals. This expansion into unstructured environments is made possible by recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and perception technologies. It's important to note that this allows for a better and more nuanced understanding of complex environments​​.

Each step forward in the field of laboratory robotics is not just a technological advancement; it's a step towards a future where scientific research is faster, more precise, and remarkably more efficient.

Laboratory automation combines a range of sophisticated robots, advanced artificial intelligence, and cloud-based solutions. This new reality is reinventing the field of life sciences. At URG, we are at the forefront of this transformation, acting not only as attentive observers but also as determined innovators.

Faced with challenges such as inefficiency, complexity in data management, and resource constraints, we view automation not just as a simple remedy but as a strategic change. It opens a new chapter of accelerated research, enhanced precision, and unprecedented productivity. This technology is not merely an improvement of existing processes; it is the catalyst for a new and bold era in scientific research.

The future of laboratories in the life sciences is not just promising but truly inspiring. At the dawn of a new era where automation surpasses its traditional role to become a pivotal point of cutting-edge scientific discoveries, our mission at URG is to remain at the forefront of this evolution. We are committed to offering solutions not only in response to current needs but also to actively participate in shaping a brighter future for scientific research.

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