In his book, 'Seven Habits of Highly Effective People', Stephen Covey tells the story of a woodcutter attempting to chop down a tree with a blunt saw. Despite the frustration of working with this ineffective tool, the woodcutter carried on, saying he was too busy to stop and sharpen it. Of course, had he taken that time, he would have been able to complete the task efficiently with a sharp saw instead of laboring in vain.
This principle of stopping to 'sharpen the saw' applies closely to our efforts to make our laboratory workflows more productive and efficient through automated liquid handling technologies. Indeed, the rapid expansion of genomics applications and research programs means that automated sample and library preparation is becoming a necessity for next-generation sequencing laboratories to enable them to keep up with demand.
Sharpening the saw and ensuring we have the right technologies and systems in place is more important than ever.
While the advantages of liquid handling automation are well-documented – greater speed, improved accuracy and precision and reduced costs – bringing in new tools and technologies can still be a daunting process.
One of the inhibiting factors is the fear that automating might make the day-to-day activity more challenging initially because of the perceived need for extensive upfront training and reliance on dedicated experts to handle the system on an ongoing basis. This concern may be grounded in a kernel of truth because, unfortunately, there are stories of labs having invested in a complex system that only one team member was able to operate. When that 'automation expert' moved on, the instrument remained untouched in the corner – a waste of space and investment. More fundamentally, such implementation hiccups, however rare, increase hesitancy about bringing on transformational technologies.
However, we are now in a world where powerful automated liquid handling solutions can be implemented by any genomics laboratory using existing expertise, without the need for an in-house automation 'expert'. So, the future of liquid handling automation – like NGS sequencing itself – will be democratic and available more widely than in the past.
A significant development in this democratization journey is more intuitive software that removes the 'fear factor' from controlling the automated instrument.
In liquid handling automation, software has often been an afterthought, and many software packages have evolved incrementally over 20 years or more building complexity on complexity. A few recent products in the market are bucking that trend to put software at the forefront of the user experience and making approachable graphical user interfaces that are intuitive and quick to learn. This is a welcome development.
Nowadays we are all used to adopting new software on a daily basis on our smartphones, so why should automated liquid handling be any different?
Another emerging trend is the shift from the reliance on the instrument vendor for new protocols.
This in part flows naturally from easier-to-use software requiring less input from vendor experts, but also the emergence of cloud-based protocol sharing.
While many vendors do provide access to new protocols, they can become a bottleneck in curating and distributing them. Cloud-based peer-to-peer sharing removes this bottleneck. Unfortunately, many current software packages make it very difficult to transfer protocols between systems with different configurations. Going forward, vendors that can enable peer-to-peer sharing of expertise in an easily transferable way between systems are likely to gain adoption.
Similarly, liquid handling instruments designed with ease of use in mind and training that quickly equips users of all levels to get up and running with their applications contribute to greater adoption of automated approaches.
Implementing a new automation solution is as much a human as a technology issue. Freeing highly qualified staff from laborious, repetitive tasks and enabling them to spend more time on rewarding scientific investigation, while providing access to new automation skills can ultimately improve their job satisfaction and enable greater innovation and productivity. In the modern-day genomics laboratory, everyone has the tools to be an automation expert and unlock the potential of efficiency gains for better scientific breakthroughs.
In our guide 'Making the move to automated liquid handling' we discuss the things you should consider as part of your business case when purchasing automated liquid handling equipment; and look at workflows that benefit from automation, so you can make an informed decision about how to proceed and how it can best work for you.