Automation Justification in Microbiology Labs

Now more than ever, the focus of microbiology labs is to continually find new ways to increase productivity, enhance the quality of test results, increase employee safety and, of course, minimize budget expenses. Automation is an option some labs are using to achieve all these objectives.

Basic microbiology lab tasks such as media preparation and dispensing, sample preparation and temperature monitoring are highly repetitive, time-intensive and tedious activities that could be completed easily by automated equipment. But in an era when microbiologists (and all corporate personnel) are pressured to do more with less, how can lab managers justify the purchase of automation equipment to top management?

The simple answer is to identify and evaluate all the potential benefits that such capital expenditure will deliver to the company’s bottom line. Lab managers will want to consider numerous factors including how the purchase of lab equipment will increase employee productivity and safety, enhance the efficiency and standardization of lab procedures, and improve the quality and reliability of test results.

Some questions to consider include:
Increasing productivity and employee safety

  • How much lab time will be freed up by automation, thereby allowing lab personnel to focus on higher-level activities?
  • What business opportunities are lost by staying with manual methods?
  • Where can automation improve workplace safety and reduce on-the-job injuries?
  • How will it improve employee morale and job satisfaction?
  • In what ways will automation help lab managers do more with the same number of people?

Enhancing the efficiency and standardization of lab procedures

  • How will automation streamline lab practices and operations?
  • How can automation standardize operations?
  • In what areas can automation reduce waste and material expenses?
  • Where can automation reduce or eliminate delays or bottlenecks?

Improving the quality and reliability of test results

  • How much will automation enhance the speed and reliability of test results?
  • How will automation improve traceability and data management in the microbiology lab?
  • How will the availability of comprehensive statistics on lab activities help managers with trending and planning?

Next, lab managers will want to quantify these benefits in dollars. For example, if lab injuries from dispensing hot media or glass breakage are problematic, a lab manager would estimate measurable costs such as lost work time, medical expenses/rehabilitation, increased insurance premiums, long-term disability, temporary staffing, etc. Immeasurable factors such as employee safety and morale are critical considerations as well. Even if employees are not injured, do they feel safe? Will concerns about potential harm impact their productivity?

When evaluating the benefits and savings of automation, lab managers will need to consider the actual cost of the equipment, annual maintenance and calibration, training, etc. In general, the lab equipment should show a positive return on investment within two to three years and offer a lifespan of five or more years if properly used and maintained.

As mentioned, there are three areas in most labs that should be evaluated for possible automation: media preparation and dispensing, sample preparation and temperature monitoring.

Critical Points: Media preparation

When considering media preparation for the microbiology lab, evaluate how automation can positively impact:

  • STERILITY: System provides sufficient temperature to sterilize the media (Example: 121°C 15mn., 110°C 20mn.);
  • FERTILITY: Temperature is maintained so media is not destroyed (i.e. does not destroy the sugar, the peptone, greater than 122°C);
  • HOMOGENEITY: Prepares the same quality of media for each batch;
  • STANDARDIZATION: System is operator-independent; prepares media the same way no matter who is operating the unit;
  • PRODUCTIVITY: Prepares media in the shortest time possible, is easy to install and implement, is a walk-away system;
  • TRACEABILITY: Documents that the media is sterile (and fertility is not compromised. (Printed report of cycle curve shows highest temperature reached and how long it was sustained).

Case Study: Media Preparation

Syed Rehan, president and chief scientific officer for Growcells.com, has based his media business on reliable automation. The Irvine, Calif.-based molecular biology supply lab performs research and develops specialized media products for molecular biologists primarily involved with cloning using robotic colony pickers in high-throughput genome research.

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