Lab automation has been an active topic since the ‘90s. In the beginning the lab-technician was replaced by a robotic arm, as time passed by automation of the process itself became the way forward. In the clinical chemistry labs, the ‘streets’ with automated centrifuges, aliquoting, decapping and analyzing of thousands of samples was and still is impressive to see. Automated storage of biobank specimens are increasingly available and in some cases a perfect match, but is this really what the majority of biobanks should look for?
When automation is considered, it is important to have a good overview of the various steps in the process. From collection to storage and retrieval of the sample, to where potential bottlenecks could arise, could these elements be solved using automation? Clear indication of capacity, available space/footprint and energy usage are clearly elements to consider. In addition to these, understanding of the number of requests for samples, available maintenance resources, annual operating costs and redundancy plans also need to be included. These user requirement discussions should therefore not only involve the biobank team, but also include feedback from other stakeholders like researchers, clinicians, financial and IT specialists.
High volumes of samples going in and out could be a reason to automate, but the number of samples being used and therefore retrieved currently stands at less than 5%. In addition, during a workshop on automated storage at Europe Biobank Week 2019 it was discussed that there are still some technical challenges related to the ultra-low temperature environment, for instance with icing, which results in higher operational and maintenance costs. If this can’t be supported by manpower or funding, don’t go down that route. In addition, Linsen et al (2020) describe their experience “The Bumpy Road To Implementation” in a recently published paper in Frontiers in Medicine.
A significant increase of capacity per manual freezer which therefore lowers the amount of space needed in the lab, lowers energy consumption and also lowers noise and reduces the use of HC refrigerants. This shows not only that manual storage has changed in the last decade, but for many biobanks, it will tick the required boxes.
In combination with 2D barcoded tubes, it is perfectly possible to store your precious samples under controlled and standardised conditions to maintain high quality. An unexpected change in capacity (for example due to the global pandemic) can be realized in a matter of days or weeks, creating a very flexible environment further enabling the service component of biobanks to drive research.
Through the years, there is a lot of evidence to show how lab automation contributed to greater efficiency and shorter turnaround times in general. This could well apply to your biobank as each cold storage solution has its specific requirements. However automation shouldn’t be a goal on its own; in many cases a step wise approach of manual cold storage is still a very sustainable and proven way forward, both economically and from an environmental perspective.
For Research Use Only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.