How automation is increasing productivity within labs

It is arguable that we are currently in the midst of an automation revolution. Most things are becoming digitised and everywhere you turn, it seems that technology is doing a job once reserved for a human, comments Ravi Hosein, Product Manager at Radleys

From the self-service checkout at the supermarket to the maps app on your smartphone, some things are now so ingrained in our everyday lives that we barely even notice them at all. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

As a chemist, how many times have you felt there’s just not enough hours in the day to complete everything you need to do?

Although it’s not possible to increase the hours in your day, it’s certainly possible to do more with the time you do have. Enhanced productivity is just one of the main benefits of using automation software within a lab.

Certain technologies and software solutions can help you work more efficiently by offering a multidisciplinary strategy to research, development and optimisation, allowing you to do more, in the same amount of time. By reducing the need for human interaction for tedious tasks, more time is available to scientists to be more innovative and creative within their core roles.

Lab automation in action

Lab automation is a fairly broad term, but whether you are doing high-throughput screening, automated clinical and analytical testing, diagnostics, large-scale experiments (or any other lab-related activities), automating your chemistry will undoubtedly save you time.

Lubrizol, a specialty chemicals company that produces a range of additives and advanced materials, has experienced the benefits of lab automation first hand, which has made a significant difference to their productivity.

Emma Playfoot, a scientist at the company, explained that before implementing lab control software, they were having difficulty monitoring exotherms during their reactions using standard thermocouples. This was a time-consuming, manual process that meant physically watching for a temperature rise.

Emma says: “We didn’t know if exotherms had occurred and if they had, on what scale they had occurred. Lab automation not only allows for increased productivity, but elevates data quality, reduces lab process time and even enables experimentation that otherwise wouldn't be possible."

Improved efficiency and productivity

There’s no doubt that lab automation can provide a huge productivity boost by eliminating the more menial, tedious tasks that tend to take up the most time. By implementing software that allows for lab automation, the need for an operator to manually make adjustments to the experiment during a reaction is removed and data is gathered simultaneously, with much more accuracy.

Many automated products also allow for dynamic changes to temperature based on feedback from the reaction, which is a great advantage if the reaction is too long for a standard working day, or there are scheduled meetings that would have otherwise interrupted the reaction.

This innovation allows reactions to run overnight, rather than having to pause them and restart them the following day, which means deviating from any potential manufacturing processes or giving inaccurate results.

It can be time consuming and mentally taxing for a single person to manually manage multiple devices and the rise of automation within labs can help overcome many of the challenges this presents.

Better use of data and improved results

In addition to increasing the accuracy of experiments, lab automation can also assist in recording experimental data and producing reports which simplify post-reaction analysis. As capturing data can be a time consuming, manual process which is often prone to errors, this is a huge benefit.

For example, lab software can track reaction exotherms and automatically record the temperature changes, then present them in a graph where the user can see how the reaction temperature varies with time.

This offers a massive benefit when speaking to manufacturers about reaction profiles, as the relevant data can be pulled straight from the software in a readily available format, making it easier to explain the different steps of the reaction.

Automating your data capture and having it presented in a digestible format, such as a graph, makes it easier to interpret. It also makes it easier to spot trends and identify anomalies you might have missed during the reaction, allowing chemists to glean insights that could help improve manufacturing processes down the line.

Improved safety

By allowing scientists to better control their lab work, they are also able to make their processes safer. The scale-up of chemical processes comes with some inherent risks, particularly with regards to controlling exotherms.

Automation can provide an increased level of safety as certain software will allow you to program the dosing so that it stops adding a reagent, or even end the reaction if the temperature of the reaction reaches a certain value. This reduces the risk of exothermic runaways, even if the reaction is left unattended.

The future of automation

With so many advances happening at seemingly such a rapid pace, it’s understandable to assume that everything is going to change immediately.

Automation comes with many bumps in the road, and it will take a while for all of the issues to be ironed out completely — so don’t expect things to change overnight. But the good news is that unlike many other professions, research shows that there is only a 26% probability of automation ‘stealing jobs’ among chemical scientists (despite a fair share of fear-mongering going on).

In fact, it’s much more about removing the need for humans to do the more boring, tedious tasks, rather than removing their jobs altogether. A helpful assistant, if you will!

Whatever the future holds, automation will be a part of it in some way, shape or form, so we should be looking to embrace it and the myriad of possibilities that come along with it.

Here’s a recap of the main benefits you can get from implementing automation systems and software into your lab processes:

  • better productivity and efficiency
  • more reproducibility
  • improved collaboration
  • fewer errors
  • enhanced safety.

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