Lab Process Automation: Everyone Wins

It’s incredibly satisfying to automate a time-consuming, error-prone lab process and make life easier for everyone involved. One of my clients had a business-critical process that was performed manually for years. Every day, around the clock, a designated employee would scan a printed spreadsheet and make groups according to several rules, some of which involved logical cascades. The person would then fill out a map of a microplate with these groups, and after validation of the work by a second person a series of technicians would perform liquid transfers using micropipettes according to the plate layout. If you’ve ever worked in a lab, you likely noticed how many opportunities for error are inherent in this procedure. It really needed to be automated, and fortunately I was given the opportunity to make it happen.

The process involved making “pools” from smaller components. The logic for making a pool was complex and intertwined, and I ended up using the Factory and Template Method design patterns from the classic Gang of Four list to make these rules manageable and allow for inevitable future requirements changes.

After the software was validated and deployed, a single user could simply scan the component microplates and place them on the deck of a liquid handler. The software provides instant feedback regarding whether a scanned plate is valid and has LIMS data available.

Labware Setup Dialog

A simple scanning interface with embedded error checking makes it easy for technicians to prepare the liquid handler worktable.

Once all the component plates are in place, the user clicks a button and the logic is run on all the selected component plates. The user is immediately notified with a detailed error message if any conflicts or deficiencies are present, and the user has an opportunity to correct the error and proceed. If all is well, the user can then customize the layout of the plate if desired.

Pooling Plate Creation

Users can define their own plate layout or chose to automatically build it.

Once the user clicks “Done,” the liquid handler instruction files are created, the liquid handler procedure starts, and reports are written to a network location for review and record-keeping

oligo-report

The generated PDF report provides a quick, neat overview of the plate layout.

This project was a huge success. It drastically reduced turnaround time and labor hours for a routine process that was one of the company’s primary revenue generators. For me personally it was very educational, enjoyable, and satisfying to work with a knowledgeable, enthusiastic group to solve an important problem.

If you have a process or problem in your lab that you need help with, let me know and we can get started fixing it!

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