Automation may seem suited only for medium to large-sized labs, but there are ways to automate even smaller operations, depending on how one defines automation. For example, it could mean using automated analyzers that in themselves form a system or it could mean incorporating a track system to connect multiple systems.

In addition to taking many forms, automation is having a wider reach than in the past. Once upon a time, staff members in microbiology labs would not have believed automation could be included in their workflows, but now automation is available for these labs too.

Sunday’s session, “Maximizing the Impact and Value of Laboratory Automation: Lessons Learned from Clinical Chemistry and Microbiology,” explored the many forms automation is taking. Speakers Jonathan Genzen, MD, PhD, Anna Merrill, PhD, Carey-Ann Burnham, PhD, and Melanie Yarbrough, PhD, shared their experiences as a window for others on how to approach the automation process so it progresses smoothly.

Though representing different types of labs, all the speakers shared the view that automation increases productivity by redirecting skilled staff to tasks that require their judgement rather than for repetitive tasks. The panel also agreed that planning and preparing in advance of any automation deployment are critical, but that guidelines for validation are lacking. “Laboratories need to make automation work for their own unique scenarios and can’t expect this to happen passively,” stressed Merrill.

Genzen recommended engaging relevant groups—including lab staff—early on to make them aware of project goals and have them identify potential obstacles. Representatives from hospital purchasing, facilities, and information technology departments (all of whom tend to be forgotten) should be brought on board from the start.

The request for proposal is a good opportunity to ask vendors about the frequency of issued recalls for their products, Genzen said. He also stressed that connecting with peers using the same instrumentation can be very revealing. Finally, it is important to share information with the vendors so they can prepare accurate proposals, but directing this request through the information technology department is helpful to maintaining boundaries and protecting patient information.

Merrill described a series of best practices her lab used for automation implementation in her laboratory. Her team set goals such as reducing turn around times or putting pediatric tubes on the automated system. The latter posed a challenge that required breaking the problem down into parts to come up with a solution. Another best practice was to streamline the front-end processes so samples were introduced to the automated system as soon as possible in order to realize the benefits of using automation.

How lab automation has revolutionized clinical chemistry labs is now serving as a model for incorporating automation in other areas, including in microbiology labs, which Burnham and Yarbrough discussed.

Automation in this context is different than in chemistry labs because it serves more as an instrument to aid with culture-based testing than as an analyzer with assays. Improved standardization, quality, and recovery of fastidious microorganisms are just some of the benefits of automation in microbiology. Automated microbiology instruments enable users to define how they use this technology, such as deciding for any particular analysis the sample volume, media, streak pattern, and incubation time.

However, Burnham cautioned that optimizing these parameters can be time consuming, and the lab director may be called upon to “be the cheerleader when you hit the bumps along the road.”

Completing the session, Yarbrough described how implementing automation changed workflows in the lab. They found that implementing automation revealed inefficiencies in processes that could be improved such as loading samples more frequently for a steadier stream of sample processing to reduce backlog.

Furthermore, recognizing that the evening was a peak time for receiving samples, as well as the first evaluation of processed samples, led to tweaking the sample review timing and adjusting staffing so new processing and reporting schedules could be met. These adjustments made dramatic improvements to turnaround times, a key laboratory metric, reducing the median turnaround times for positive cultures by up to 14 hours.

As the session ended, it was apparent that attendees enjoyed and were inspired by what they heard, as their questions kept the conversation going past the time allotted.