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The laboratory automation expert

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Authored by: Steven D. Hamilton, SLAS Director of Education

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Today, implementing laboratory automation is about leveraging resources.  Technology providers, academic labs, government institutions and system integrators all offer a rich source of technology and expertise, but the automation-implementing organization must still provide the necessary resources and expertise to address all the phases of managing an automation project.  Choosing the right project, technology and collaborators and implementing, validating and maintaining successful automation requires a wide range of technical, interpersonal and managerial skills and knowledge.  The person with that unique set of skills we refer to as "the laboratory automation expert".

Contents

The "expert" role in organizations

 
Data gathered from the 2006 ALA Survey on Industrial Laboratory Automation[1] indicates the need for automation customization has remained relatively constant over the past decade, but the percentage of that customization work being done in-house, by the end-using organization, has decreased. Seventy-five percent of the respondents indicate their organization has internal resources dedicated to doing laboratory automation, up from 64% in 1998.

Describe the percentage of automation sourcing in your laboratory / organization from each of the listed sources.  ALA 2006 survey
Answer 2006 2003 1998
Off the shelf (no customization): 47% 46% 48%
Developed in-house: 15% 20% 22%
Developed/customized via original vendor: 26% 24% 25%
Developed/customized via 3rd party integrator: 11% 9% 4%
Other: 1% 1% 1%

 

Does your company / organization employ dedicated internal staff serving as automation resources? ALA 2006 survey
Answer 2006 2003 1998
Yes 75% 66% 64%
No 25% 34% 36%


At first glance, this would seem to be contradictory data - less customization work done in house, but employing more internal resources.  The reality is that planning and coordination of complex projects with one or more outside resources can often be as time consuming as "doing the task yourself".  Utilizing outside resources allows one to tap into a deeper and more diverse set of skills, resulting in a better end-product.  But the approach also requires much more extensive documentation and communication than if doing the task yourself.  Automation efforts have also spread into many more segments of organizations than was the case in 1998, so total organizational time spent on new initiatives or updating and maintaining prior efforts has grown.  Some of this growth is accomodated by staffing and some via outsourcing.   

How important are "internal automation resources" to the success of automation projects?  The 2006 ALA survey inquired about management perception of automation success and found that 56% reported their management felt the organizations investement in lab automation had  "succeeded in delivering the expected benefits".  Fourty-six percent reported a management perception of having "producted mixed results".  

My company / organization's senior management feels its investment in laboratory automation has: ALA 2006 survey
Answer %
Succeeded in delivering the expected benefits: 56%
Produced mixed results: 43%
Has not delivered the expected benefits: 1%

If these data are cross-referenced with the internal resource data, a clear indication of the impact of those internal resources emerges.  Organizations with internal lab automation resources reported a much higher percieved level of automation success.  It's important to note that "percieved success" is relative and involves proper expectation setting and knowledgable choice of projects as well as good project execution.   

Internal resources vs. reported success
Answer

Organizations with internal resources

Organizations w/o internal resources
Succeeded in delivering the expected results

61%

39%
Produced mixed results 37% 61%
Has not delivered the expected benefits 2% 0%

Finally, we look at the impact of internal resources on how aggressively organizations pursue new technology.  The 2006 survey asked respondents about their organizations preferred entry point to new technology, and when these data are cross-referenced with internal resource data, we can see that organizations with internal resources are more aggressive in adopting new technology. 

Technology entry point vs. internal resources
Technology Entry Point Organizations  with internal resources Organizations w/o internal resources
Bleeding edge: technology showing high potential, but yet to demonstrate value or practicality 7% 5%
Leading edge: technology proven in marketplace but few knowledgeable personnel to implement or support it 67% 44%
State of the Art: when everyone agrees that a particular technology is the right solution 26% 51%

Who is an "expert"?

Often experts can be identified by their academic training, but not so with laboratory automation experts.  An informal survey of ALA leadership finds a mix of degree levels from such diverse fields as analytical and organic chemistry, chemical engineering, aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science and biology.  Most began their journey into the field based on an interdisciplinary interest that spans science, engineering and computers.  They took advantage of opportunities to pursue that mix of interests and eventually found themselves recognized as laboratory automation experts.  Typically these individuals enjoy practical problem solving and are adept at self-learning.  The important core disciplines or skills that a person must have or develop expertise in to be prepared for a role as a laboratory automation expert are:

  • Science, e.g. chemistry, biology, biochemistry, chemical engineering 
  • Computer programming
  • Engineering, mechanical and/or electrical
  • Project management
  • Team leadership
  • Business practices
  • Self-learning, i.e. the ability to teach oneself new skills or areas of expertise

Skills that once were essential, such as fabrication, machining and assembly, are now much less necessary, reflecting the changing role of such resources within an organization. 

Developing laboratory automation experts

Detailed List of University Programs

Todays leaders in the field of laboratory automation today have a diverse academic background. When they were university age, there were no academic institutions that offered official interdisciplinary degrees approximating the mix of disciplines described above. Some individuals developed their interests and background in academic research groups that offered a technology-focused interdisciplinary experience within a traditional degree program. Others found unique job situations that offered interdisciplinary exposure. Today a few academic institutions have begun to embrace laboratory technology focused, interdisciplinary education and have recognized that exposure to practical problem solving enhances learning. They are collaborating with industry to define course content and to make current technology part of the students learning experience. Examples include: 

Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), Claremont CA, USA

KGI was founded in 1997 as the first American graduate school dedicated exclusively to applied life sciences. Their two-year program leading to a professional master of bioscience (MBS) degree combines business and technical content to produce leaders who are prepared to translate research discoveries into practical applications. Year one of the program provides a broad, interdisciplinary education in both applied life sciences and busines while the second year offers the opportunity to focus on career-oriented areas in preparation for a specific industry career path. During the second year, students are involved in an industry-sponsored team masters project (TMP), in which they are responsible for TMP management, work breakdown, setting of goals and milestones, meeting budgets, preparing oral and written progress reports, and coordinating meetings with faculty advisors and industry liaisons.

First year students participate in nine thematic modules consisting of a combination of lectures, laboratory sessions, computer labs, exercises, team projects, and guest seminars. Those modules are:

  • From Genes to Targets
  • From Targets to Products
  • Introduction to High Throughput Technologies
  • Molecular Interactions, Recognition and Transport
  • Exploring the Proteome
  • Enzymatic Control
  • Genetic Control
  • Cellular Analysis
  • Systems Engineering Design

Students are introduced to requirements-driven engineering design as the coordinating principle that underlies the development of technology in the life sciences. Teams step through conceptual, preliminary, and detailed design phases at various times during the year. In the course of these modules, they are introducted to and gain experience with computer-aided design (CAD), mathematical modeling, engineering dimensional analysis and state-of-the-art instruments. Keck has also arranged for lectures from industry scientific leaders and visits to highly automated industry laboratories. These engineering science components of the curriculum provide students with the quantitative understanding needed to bridge more traditional science disciplines with engineering design.[2]

Institute of Automation (IAT), College of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering of the University of Rostock, Mecklenburg / Vorpommern - Germany

The University of Rostock (founded in 1419) is home to various technology centers. One of these, begun in 1994 in the technology park of Warnemuende, is the IAT, devoted to interdisciplinary research topics from the fields of Life Sciences and Maritime Technologies. The IAT is developing customized solutions in the field of life science automation.[3] Key competencies with the institute are:

  • Instrument design / Reaction technology
  • System development
  • Robotics
  • Automated Analyses including preanalytical sample treatment
  • Remote Control
  • HTS
  • Process Control Systems
  • Internet LIMS

Within the IAT is The Center for Life Science Automation (CELISCA), an international center of expertise offering an environment for effective interdisciplinary research and development projects, staffed by chemists, biologists, pharmacologists and physicians, as well as electro-technicians, machine builders, computer scientists and automation experts. The Institute for Automation is not a typical institute at a German university. It represents a new way of
successful cooperation between industry and universities. Industry has a great demand for development of automated solutions in different fields of life science applications, and universities must find new interesting research topics to ensure a state of the art education of the students. Over 30 Ph.D. thesis have or are being completed at the IAT at the time of this writing (2008). 

University of Applied Sciences Wiesbaden, Germany

The Fachhochschule Wiesbaden / University of Applied Sciences has 40 programs of study, with Bachelor and Master degree courses.  They have embedded laboratory automation education in their Computer Science Master and Diploma programs.  Laboratory automation education is composed of engineering, computer science, and fundamentals of science and specifically focuses on:

  • The scientific methodology to solve the problem
  • Technologies and tools for 24/7 operations in automated laboratory environments
  • Generic process description incl. workflow processing
  • Scheduling
  • Instrumentation
  • LIMS
  • Visualization and simulation
  • Building generic software to integrate the technical solution into the overall environment
  • Contribution to standards development.

Recognizing that laboratory automation expertise is spread thoughout many organizations and companies around the world, the Wiesbaden program is utilizing modern video conferencing and desktop sharing technologies to bring experts to their students.  The current “Series of Laboratory Automation Lectures” is comprised of ten company and research institutions provided lectures in addition to several lectures provided by Wiesbaden professors. Students are able to interact with the remote presenters via video and audio.[4]

Students are developing generic software in projects.  Some of these projects are in cooperation with German and international technology providers.

A wide variety of diploma theses on Life Sciences automation topics were developed within the last 20 years in the Wiesbaden Computer Integrated Laboratory (WICIL).

References

  1. Hamilton, S.D. 2006 ALA Survey on Industrial Laboratory Automation, JALA, 2007, 12, 239-246
  2. Sterling, J.D., Laboratory Automation Curriculum at Keck Graduate Institute, JALA, 2004, 9, 331-334
  3. Thurow, K., Automation for Life Sciences - Institute for Automation, University Rostock , JALA, 2002, 7, 89-91
  4. European Pharmaceutical Review, April 7, 2008

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