Laboratory automation technology is ready and about to move into production
Most large clinical pathology laboratories in the United States and other developed nations now have a decade or more of experience with laboratory automation. In response to what is now a substantial market for laboratory automation, in vitro diagnostics (IVD) manufacturers are preparing to introduce the next generation of laboratory automation.
“Lab automation is a market, particularly in Asia, that has reached what we call mid-level maturity. It is no longer unusual to have an automated laboratory, it’s almost routine. Today, the question is ‘what’s next?’” observed Robin A. Felder, Ph.D. , publisher of Medical Automation and Professor of Pathology and Associate Director of Clinical Chemistry at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“To remain competitive,” Felder said, “the next generation of lab automation will need to be considerably faster. Currently, if you measure the speed of automated systems used in clinical laboratories, performance of clinical laboratory automation nowhere approximates the performance of automation in place in other industries. For example, the performance of automated systems used in pharmacies is improving at a much, much quicker pace.”
Felder stated that IVD manufacturers often took the least expensive development path, in order to get their equipment into labs. “Designing for performance speed was not their primary motivation; rather, it was making their equipment affordable.
“Now that clinical laboratories have experience with lab automation, they are willing to invest more, because they can see the return on investment,” says Felder. “IVD manufacturers can now step up the performance speed a bit, particularly in bottlenecks, such as centrifugation. Existing technologies out there will speed up centrifugation considerably, but I have yet to see any manufacturer make the investment needed to incorporate that existing technology into routine use by clinical laboratories.”
“Another area is central inspection. The capability exists that uses a machine vision system that can detect a medical specimen and pre-determine if the volume in the tube is correct,” continued Felder. “The machine vision system will perform sample-type matches of what’s been ordered, and if it has been well-separated in centrifugation. I predict that automation will be used to create a series of quality control stations between accessioning and sampling. These stations would verify several aspects of specimen quantity and quality before the tubes move from specimen prep to the laboratory analyzers.
“It’s expensive whenever the problem with the specimen is not discovered until that specimen is already in the analyzer,” noted Felder. “It’s better to weed those problems out early so they don’t hang up the actual production part of the lab analysis.”
Accessioning is another area that Felder says is ripe for increased efficiency and speed through better use of laboratory automation. Currently, many phlebotomy sites still hand-select and hand-label specimen tubes, which must then be bar-coded at the lab. Some large commercial labs use another approach. These labs supply their blood collection sites with pre-bar-coded tubes, which, in turn, must be linked within the commercial lab’s database to the patient information.
“There is technology available to imbed a chip in the specimen tube. The patient information can be uploaded to the chip, so that no matter where that tube goes, the lab can read the patient information directly from the chip,” Felder stated.
Felder further noted that there is an automated product out of Japan, called the BC Robo. This automated system prepares the collection supplies for the phlebotomist. It selects and bar-codes the specific tubes and collection supplies for an individual patient. It links the bar codes to the patient information, then loads the necessary tubes and collection supplies for the individual patient into a tray. Everything the phlebotomist needs for that patient is ready to use.
“If you have a waiting room full of patients, eliminating the need to hand select and label tubes would greatly speed up the process,” added Felder.
To learn more about new developments in laboratory automation and different automation solutions, pathologists and laboratory managers can access Tagline, a free weekly online publication published by Medical Automation, a non-profit organization dedicated to sharing information among medical automation professionals. —K. Branz