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The benefits of lab automation have and continue to be shared. There is plenty of justification to do so and a lot of work behind it to verify the benefits accordingly. At the same time though, it’s important to consider and look at the limitations of lab automation.
Automation itself is not a guarantee of success or indeed a free pass necessarily to the various benefits it presents. There is still work to do to ensure it delivers on its promise and understanding its potential limitations can help in that regard.
There are a number of lab automation limitations to explore.
- Psychological dependence on automation – there is school of thought that automation can lead to a rapid deterioration of skills and inefficient resuming of manual functioning when automation should fail. In essence therefore, a dependence on the automation equipment develops to the point that lab team members no longer have the confidence in their ability or indeed the experience necessary to handle manual operations. Consider the example of a blackout which results in the automation equipment being unable to perform as expected. The lab staff now, as a result, need to engage in error management, with studies noting that the human response to automation failure was shown to often be dramatic. Team members would be accountable to manually perform the tasks that the automation solution was responsible for within a backdrop of anxiety, stress and potentially exacerbated by the lack of actual manual power due to staff reductions. When team members who have limited experience with manual laboratory work are involved, the issue is further aggravated and can lead to a ceasing of operations with the subsequent consequences.
- Increased risk of downtime – this would be the result of a system failure for a variety of reasons. As per the point above, it would necessitate the move towards manual processes of which there may be an inability to properly perform as a result of not having the necessary skill set and confidence. Either way, there would be an inevitable downtime affecting the service levels of the lab.
- Innovation inhibition – there is a danger and an argument that can indeed be made that automation may hinder innovation. How? Lab staff may assume that the automation solution’s process steps do not have a need for improvement as they are already optimized. Consideration should also be given to the fact that the team are unlikely to even be given the authority to “tinker” with the equipment and change things as well as the point that they likely lack the know-how to do so. We also have to factor in the point of obsolescence of the automation equipment. It is challenging, if not impossible, to predict when equipment will become obsolete.
- The Luddite effect – just as there was resistance to the move to machinery in the Luddite movement, so should consideration be given to opposition to automation from lab staff. People in general get comfortable and used to working in particular ways. As the saying goes, we are creatures of habit and when someone comes in with something new that will impact the way we work – even if it is for the better in the long run – then we can expect a degree of hostility. It is fair to say that some may view automation as a risk to their particular roles in the lab.
In spite of the several limitations of lab automation, they have to be weighed against the very real benefits including but not limited to cost savings, greater productivity, more time for value added activities and less errors. Moreover, understanding those very same limitations can help with a successful transition to an automated environment. For example, consideration must most definitely be given to people, and they will need to be convinced and shown how automation will actually help them in their role and indeed, enhance their role. Moreover, equipment can be future proofed with careful consideration and, planning for times when automation doesn’t work as it is supposed to, can be useful to avoid significant down times and an inability to perform certain tasks.
Limitations are not there to be used as reasons to necessarily push back against the idea of automation but rather to avoid any automation hyperbole and more of an understanding that it is immensely useful but only when implemented correctly and with the support of the wider team.