If we address some basic issues, labs can be transformed into more effective and productive facilities where people can be encouraged to do their best work. Getting there has less to do with technology and more to do with people’s ability to put that technology to work.
There are two issues that need attention:
• We have reached a point where there are a lot of products, but what is lacking is an understanding about how to use them effectively; it takes education to bring lab personnel to the point where they can fully exploit the tools available, and then advise vendors of what is needed in the next generation of products.
• Working as teams in the planning and implementation of lab automation projects. Lab management, lab staff, and support groups need to understand their roles in the process.
We are moving from the use of a collection of isolated technologies into a phase where cooperative/collaborative programs are becoming important, as is the need to streamline lab operations to achieve increased productivity. There is also more emphasis on managing the lab’s intellectual property. We have to move up a level on how we use technology and that requires a change in how lab workflows are planned and implemented. It also requires more effective use of corporate financial resources. All of that requires teamwork, better planning and technology management, and expanding the roles of key players in the team partnership:
• Senior management sets the ground rules for how projects are managed and implemented. The goal is to make sure work is done according to standards that meet good project management practices, regulatory requirements, and the ability to reuse work rather than reinventing the same solutions. The ground rule should be the same across all labs in an organization.
• Lab managers have to understand the lab’s workflows and plan for the use and management of technologies and products. The end result should be systems-level thinking that moves in the direction of integration as the technology permits. Managers have to guide the use of technology lab-wide instead of just addressing isolated problems.
• Lab staff’s role will change from executing lab work to overseeing, managing, and optimizing the use of lab systems. They would also provide recommendations for improving the way systems function.
• IT support would be responsible for project planning, management and implementation. This moves beyond basic information technology support to understanding how lab systems function and the use of computer-based systems and technologies to advance lab work.
Achieving that level of teamwork means that those involved understand not only the science that underlies lab work, but the automation technologies that can be used to carry it out. Developing those systems means more for example, than mimicking how a person would carry out a task for automated sample preparation and processing, it means a process analysis that may re-structure how a procedure is done to get the best return on the investing in automation.
The bottom line is simply this: better educated people working cooperatively to develop systems that advance the ability to do lab work, in both research and testing, at a higher level of quality and productivity.
Technology development and implementation happens in cycles: a need is filled with tools, we master those tools and create another level of requirements. We have tools, now we need to master their use before we move the cycle further. In order to truly master what we have to work with, we need people with better skills. Then we will be able to use what we have and appreciate the gaps in our capabilities and fill them.
Back to the title…
The early phases of lab automation development were focused on technologies and equipment. When questions like the one in the title of this piece were posed, they were answered with glowing predictions of what might be possible. Many of those predictions have yet to be realized. None of them addressed the basic issue of people’s ability to fully understand and apply the products offered by vendors. Any progress we want to make is going to be predicated on a workforce well educated in the use of the tools, and possessing the ability to look beyond what is currently available to what is needed next.
So, where will the industry be in five years? That all depends on industries willingness to educate those who use the tools and technologies, as well as those who develop them.