How To Automate Your Lab, Part 4: Costs and Protocol Development

This post is an excerpt from our 18-page "Introducing Automation To Your Lab" e-book. Click here to download the e-book.

Chapter 6: Cash Considerations

Some financial aspects have already been mentioned, and the $100,000-or-more myth could be the biggest stumbling block to automation in some life science labs. As shown, though, it doesn’t take $100,000 or even $10,000 to automate a wet lab. $4,000 can be enough for a pipetting robot, depending on the lab’s needs. See “Figure 6: Robot Pricing Table” for an overview of what different solutions cost.

Figure-6

Expect a liquid-handling robot to come with software made for that platform and designed to make your life easier, not more complicated.

Still, buying a liquid handling robot isn’t the end of a lab’s automation spending. If a robot doesn’t come with software to run it—and it should—then the lab needs to buy it. That could also mean working with software that’s not designed for a specific robot, which can make programming more complex—maybe complex enough to require an expert. But that shouldn’t happen! Expect a liquid-handling robot to come with software made for that platform and designed to make your life easier, not more complicated.

Some systems require in-person installation from the manufacturer, which can get complicated and costly —but it doesn’t have to be. Scientists can select a platform that is nearly plug-and-play—almost as simple as unpackaging it, plugging it in, adding reagents, and hitting ‘run’ to execute a protocol.

Reagents can also be costly, but they are already factored into a lab’s costs. An automated system can use reagents more efficiently by reducing error and pipetting consistently every run, which leads to cost savings over time. That same efficiency can also save on the amount of sample required. In situations where sample is scarce—say, a sample from an endangered species—using a smaller volume of it can lead to extracting more priceless information
from it.

Automated liquid handling has additional cost-saving benefits, too. By saving scientists’ time in the lab, they can do more—from high-priority tasks like grant and article writing to designing new experiments, and even creative daydreaming. Providing scientists with more time to think about and do science is a key goal of all labs.

That creative thinking will, hopefully, spawn new ideas that require new experiments. Some of those will require new workflows. In those situations, a robot with workflow flexibility will come in handy, so that it can be adapted to new uses. In some labs, multiple uses will be intended all along, and in those cases a versatile robot is valuable from the start.

Chapter 7: Developing Your Protocol

To do a lab any good at all, a liquid-handling robot must run protocols that fit a lab’s workflow. Nearly every scientist needs to tweak any protocol to fit their needs, especially as a lab’s needs evolve.

The first question is: Does a robot allow a scientist to develop and tweak custom protocols themselves? Some don’t. In those cases, scientists must ask the vendor to make any changes they need in the system—or worse, the system is locked down and no changes are possible. With other vendors, a scientist must pay for an engineer from their company to make a custom protocol. Often that can cost $5,000 or more, even for small adjustments. In some cases, the vendor will teach a lab member to create custom protocols, but that training can cost thousands of dollars too.

Many robotics companies have graphical interfaces for you to develop your own protocol in a point-and-click manner, as well as programming languages that allow you to write your protocol in code. Check to see what options are included with the price of

the robot, and what software you have to pay extra for. You should also consider your learning curve for any tool. If you do not write code, sometimes a graphical user interface (GUI) is the only option—but not all GUIs are simple, and some can have learning curves as difficult as learning to code. The same goes with coding interfaces: these can be extremely complicated, or very simple—make sure you know what you’re getting into!

Many automation companies will also have relationships with reagent makers where they have verified certain kits and protocols that work well on their robotics. Sometimes, this ‘verification’ is effectively just saying: “we got this to work, maybe you can too.” Sometimes, the reagent company will send a field application scientist out to load the correct protocol onto your robot to run the desired kit. And sometimes, companies provide verified protocols for commonly used reagent kits for free to download from their website—which is what Opentrons does.

Figure-7

This post is an excerpt from our 18-page "Introducing Automation To Your Lab" e-book. Click here to download the e-book.