Lab Automation: What we need to accomplish in 2013

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Joe Liscouski

Products don’t matter until you’ve done the design and planning that determines what components you need and how you are going to use them.  Have you ever remodeled a kitchen?  Do you purchase cabinets and appliances first or do you figure out how the kitchen is going to function and buy elements to bring that function to life?
There are other similarities between laboratory data systems planning (lab-wide, not just individual workstations) and kitchen remodeling, including:
  • Once you’ve done it, you don’t want to have to do it again - ever
  • If it isn’t done right, you will have to do it again, a bad design isn’t something you can live with
  • You have to plan for more than “right now”, but make provision for changes – the design has to have some flexibility to accommodate changing technologies
One point that comes to mind is this: who is responsible for the planning?  You would expect it to be the lab’s management since the lab’s operations are their responsibilities.  If you look at educational programs for lab managers they stress people issues: communications, helping staff be productive, organizational skills, leadership, etc., nothing on technology planning.
IT groups aren’t likely to do it either.  If they see a need for technology development, they may jump in, but that point is several steps down from the planning function, which is predicated on an understanding of lab operations, the science behind it, and process analysis.
We need to upgrade the concept of “laboratory management”.  The centuries old model of management’s role of helping people to do their best work has to be expanded in two ways.  Firstly, we have to provide people with the best tools to do their work and  to make sure that they have the education needed to use those tools; it is not just about science, but how the science is done.
Secondly, we need to revisit the reasons labs exist: their purpose is to produce data, information, and knowledge.  It isn’t about the stuff in sample tubes, it’s about understanding what the stuff is, how to produce it, characterize it, and how it addresses the lab’s mission, whether it is research or testing.  That means a major part of a lab’s work is the management of data, information, and knowledge, a function that used be concerned with cataloging spectra, chromatograms, thermal analysis charts, etc., and notebooks – paper.  That function has become much more complex and important to the organizations of which the lab is a part. 
The fact that paper-based lab results are now increasingly in digital form means that they are more useable to support both the lab’s work and corporate needs for legal, regulatory, and product development applications. Limiting the focus to laboratory workstations through automated data collection and reporting only slightly improves the ability to meet this need.  Isolated LIMS, and ELNs are also only incremental improvements.
If we really want to transform lab operations we need to begin to address laboratory system planning on a lab-wide integrated basis, and that should include the connections to other organizations the lab works with, not just the work within the lab’s walls.  Lab managers need the additional education – and the incentive by corporate management – to take on this planning function if the labs and people they are responsible for are going to meet the demands of modern lab work.  The need for education doesn’t stop with the lab’s personnel, IT departments need to prepare their staffs to participate in the planning and implementation work.
If you’ve read any of the previous columns in this series, you are probably surprised that the word “standards” hasn’t come up.  Standards – data interchange and communications – are appropriate when considering the planned system’s implementation.  It won’t be until we’ve done a good job on the planning front that the need for standards will become painfully clear, and perhaps give the incentive to be more aggressively on that front.
The purpose of the Institute for Laboratory Automation – a non-profit 501(c)3 organization – is to help you by developing methodologies for planning and implementing laboratory systems, and, educational programs needed to help people carry out those tasks. That work is the basis for the development of several programs, two of which are related to this article:
• The Elements of Laboratory Technology Management Program is directed at providing a basis for organizing the work needed to manage and implement lab systems.  More detail can be found at:
• There are on-line courses to support that work and more information can be found at
Joe Liscouski, Executive Director
Institute for Laboratory Automation
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