Since the first mechanised laboratory instruments became available in the late 1950s, clinical lab automation has moved ahead in leaps and bounds. Many labs are now using automated practices to improve productivity and efficiency, maximise data quality and enable new research in the lab.
So where did lab automation begin, how is it changing – and what can we expect to change in the next five or ten years?
The early days of lab automation
It’s been over 70 years since we saw the first mechanised lab instruments designed to improve the efficiency of sample testing, starting with Leonard Skeggs’ invention of the single-channel continuous flow analyser by 1957. The first product, the Technicon AutoAnalyzer I, could assay blood urea nitrogen at the rate of 20 samples per hour, or provide simultaneous analyses of several tests when linked to a flame photometer. 1967 saw the first multi-channel analyser which performed eight blood chemistry tests on each sample and allowed results to be punched onto cards which could be read into a computer. By 1972, Technicon Corporation had added a computer to its Sequential Multiple Analyzer to produce the SMAC, which could identify samples, calibrate each testing channel and calculate results automatically. By 1974, the SMAC could provide 21 different chemical analyses.
The late 1970s also saw the ad hoc introduction of Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS), which aimed to minimise transcription errors and streamline the collection of data. 1982 saw the first generation of LIMS with a single centralised minicomputer, followed by a second generation using relational databases by 1988, and a third generation by the early 1990s that took advantage of client/server architecture. By 1996, web-enabled LIMS were available. These progressions required electrical upgrades for many labs to cope with the new technology. By 1981, the technologies were adequate to enable a Japanese university hospital to create the first fully automated laboratory system.
This evolved further with the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique in 1983 by Kary Mullis, followed by the development of real time PCR or qPCR by 1993. 2013 saw the first iterations of a portable real time PCR detection system to take the lab ‘out of the lab’.
From the very beginning, lab automation aimed to free researchers from manual processes and speed up the testing process, but it’s since evolved past that: now, automation can provide more accurate and high-quality results.
The new era of automation
Where a hospital laboratory was doing well to process 1,500 tests per day in 1967 using automated systems, there are now hospital laboratories processing 30,000 tubes every day using sophisticated automation and robotics. Of course, not all labs have $60 million on hand to create this kind of set-up! At every level, though, there’s innovation to be found.
Robotics and sensors
Many of the lab automation developments in recent years have incorporated the use of sensors and robotics to improve reliability, safety and accuracy. The Myra liquid handling system is a perfect example, with an integrated camera that provides one-click position calibration. Its pressure-based liquid level sensing monitors the aspirate and dispense process to alert the user to any errors, providing precision of less than 2% for 2 µL pipetting volumes.
Size and portability
The improved portability and scalability of lab equipment is another relatively recent advantage, with a move away from the slab-like lab machines of yesterday. In the years that mobile qPCR options have been available, we’ve developed the Mic real time PCR cycler to be just over 2kg in weight. Its patented magnetic induction technology enables rapid and accurate heating and cooling, with 35 cycles possible in under 25 minutes*. Up to 10 Mics can even be connected to one PC at a time and powered by battery, providing excellent reproducibility even while out in the field.
Software is another key development that’s evolved significantly along with hardware. Connected platforms have become increasingly important, and they remove the double handling and once-disparate systems across sample management, automation scheduling and data analysis. Our own software enables seamless connectivity between the Myra liquid handling system and Mic thermal cycler. A researcher can see detailed statistical analysis as soon as the run is completed, or compile up to 10 runs in real time and analyse up to 480 samples as it suits.
What does the future of lab automation hold?
Given lab automation has evolved so rapidly in the past five years, there’s untold potential for future technologies. New labs will be faster, more flexible and more portable than ever before.
One area that many lab managers are envisioning is that of mobile robotics. We’re sure that many a scientist has envisioned a robotic lab assistant that can autonomously carry and handle samples in the lab (and perhaps deliver coffees!). Although there are many warehouses and workplaces that are already embracing mobile robotics, it seems there are still some issues to iron out around robots and humans sharing their space. Amazon warehouses using robotics have reported nearly quadruple the amount of injuries experienced by staff, for example, while food delivery robots were pulled from one college campus after blocking the pavements for a wheelchair user. These complexities will no doubt be resolved over time.
We can also perhaps look forward to more accessible and affordable automation systems – the democratisation of technology. Where once automated equipment was reserved for the best-funded labs, smaller and more portable solutions could well see more schools, teaching labs and universities able to incorporate the newest science lab equipment in Australia and around the world. Together with increased portability, this can truly decentralise the lab, improve STEM education and inspire new generations of researchers.
While we don’t need to worry about robo-scientists taking over our jobs any time soon, we can look forward to increasingly accessible and advanced systems to assist us in our research, testing and diagnostic environments.
There probably won’t ever be a time that humans are ever removed from the lab entirely. Whatever the next few years hold, one thing is certain. Innovation still has, and always will have, a key role in the lab.