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Steve Jobs once said, “the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology.”
Given the rapid expansion of robotics in the life sciences, it’s difficult to disagree with that assessment.
Commercial and academic applications of robotic process automation in the life sciences allows for work to be done at rates far beyond human capabilities. These systems also allow for work in difficult-to-access and hazardous areas, such as near biological, chemical and radioactive dangers.
Process automation includes both performing actual tests and basic, manual tasks. When you consider the volume of specimens that are tested, and the amount of data collected in the typical lab, the usefulness of robotics should be quite apparent.
For example, a robotic system can pipette a 96 well plate in 20 seconds without errors or inaccurate measurements. These robotic pipette systems simply replace a scientists’ thumb with an electric motor, allowing researchers to add more value doing other tasks.
Commercial and Research Applications
Laboratory automation has been expanding in scope, used in everything from drug discovery to pharmaceutical manufacturing to performing blood sample analysis. This versatility is due in part to features like robotic vision and easy tool changing.
Much of the growth of robotic process automation is being driven by the pharmaceutical industry. In clinical pharmaceutical laboratories, automation is utilized for drug discovery and development. The benefits of greater reliability, better product integrity, better documentation and higher traceability can also be realized in other industries.
Non-commercial research laboratories are also benefitting from robotic process automation. Workspace is typically at a premium in these facilities. To confront this issue, makers of laboratory robotics are pushing to shrink the size of the equipment they create.
One increasingly popular form of miniaturized robotics is the “lab on the chip” system. These are the size of microchips and imprinted with very small liquid vessels for biological testing. Miniaturization, portability and small sample requirements are significantly critical to laboratories that carry out thousands of trials.
A ‘lab on the chip’ uses much less sample, takes up much less space and is more portable. These systems make sensitive and costly bioassays more efficient and possible out in the field.
Addressing the Growing Labor Shortfall
Robotic process automation is also helping labor demands in the life sciences. In particular, clinical laboratories have difficulty hiring new technicians due to a lack of qualified candidates. The average age of clinical laboratory technicians is around 50 years old, and there aren't enough younger technicians coming in to take the place of those nearing retirement age.
As a result, the robotics industry has been reporting elevated adoption rates and acceptance of robots in laboratory settings.
Technician work in a laboratory typically isn't very glamorous. The work is often done at night or in the early hours of the morning. The pay is competitive with other professions, but laboratories are usually situated in windowless basements, which isn't an attractive work environment.
Due to a gradual but consistent decrease in the number of people pursuing STEM programs, relevant degree programs have been scaled back and even shuttered. Without an adequate number of new laboratory technicians, robotic process automation is filling the void.
The pipette robots are one example of a step towards fully-automated laboratories. As laboratories become increasingly automated, they have the potential to democratize access to costly testing and research, which should increase innovation in the life sciences.
For now, process automation means being faster, more dependable and also means cheaper testing. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2016 there were almost 340,000 medical laboratory technicians involved in collecting specimens and performing tests on body fluids, tissue and other samples.
With a median pay of more than $50,000 annually, that translates into over $17 billion in labor costs. Robotic process automation can free up well-paid technicians to do more value-added activities rather than mundane tasks like pipetting.