Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

How, and Where, Robots Have Replaced the Human Touch in Biopharma R&D

The global market for lab automation is set to grow over the next five years into a $5.106 billion industry by 2020, MarketsandMarkets projected recently, based on a 2014 figure of $3.474 billion and projected compound annual growth rate of 6.7% from this year. However, Kalorama is more even upbeat. They reported total sales of $5.4 billion in lab automation systems sold to clinical labs alone in 2014!

Both firms agree, however, on the drivers of growth: These include miniaturization, the desire of customers to ramp up their volume of screening samples, advances in drug discovery and clinical diagnostics, improvements in reproducibility and accuracy, and the gap between demand and supply. At the root of that growth, however, was the desire of labs to enhance efficiency by cutting labor costs while increasing their amount of work.

Below are six laboratory tasks now largely handled by robots and other machinery of automation, followed by a brief description of how the positions have evolved, and a source for the information. 

Handling liquids

Automated liquid handling has become an indispensable tool in drug discovery, where high throughput screening can entail campaigns as high as millions of compounds. Volumes may be fixed or variable, with common configurations being 4, 6, 8, 12, 96, 384, up to 1536 plates. In addition to increased throughput, streamlining screening operations using automated fluid devices is designed to ensure consistency and reliability while avoiding human error. Technology advances have been driven in large part by cost reduction and efficiency.1

Specimen inspection

Automated inspection is designed to catch errors that can be generated during specimen accessioning without adding to labor costs. Errors may include improper labeling, inadequate vial filling, or an inappropriate vial. Additional errors can occur as technicians read the specimen information and determine if the specimen is appropriate for analysis. The sooner errors can be spotted, the sooner they can be remedied by special specimen handling or ordering a fresh specimen.2


Biopharma is moving toward fully automating the operations involved in preparing a column for production. Existing semi-automated packing technology typically only automates portions of the process, leaving considerable potential for operator error. By moving to a fully automated packing platform, a multinational vaccine company forecast a packing success rate increase from 62% to 99%. Use of automation is on track to reduce labor costs by 35% on average.3

Sample processing (including storing and retrieving)

The once-manual tasks of processing samples, including storage and retrieval, have been given over to instrumentation. Automation solutions fall into two groups: instruments that function primarily as specimen processors, and systems that offer total microbiology laboratory automation solutions. One reason: Overall testing volumes are rising 10 to 15% per year, driven in part by an aging population, testing innovations, infection control demands, and the need to detect and identify multidrug-resistant microorganisms. Other factors include a shortage in trained microbiology technologists, and increased demand for faster turnaround times for infectious disease assays as hospital stays get shorter.4

Lab data recording

Labs have long relied on machines for specialized work, such as sequencing or copying DNA, so why not for other functions long carried out by humans, say conducting experiments and recording the results? Automation has expanded into these simpler tasks thanks to a crop of startups launched over the past three years. The startups use remote computers that allow researchers to place work orders, then see their tests carried out through machines guided by robots. The startups also facilitate data storage and recall through solutions that integrate advances in software and robotics.5

Compound Screening

Biopharma’s need for high-throughput screening of potential drug candidates helped fuel the spread of automation in the laboratory, with the process regulated by robots, detectors and software. A decade ago, one company could boast of ramping up from running 100-200 compounds a week to running between 2,000 and 5,000 compounds.6 But by 2011, ultra-high-throughput screening had become capable of enabling examination of 100,000 compounds per day.7

Chai., S.C., Goktug, A.N., Cui, J., et. al. (2013) Practical considerations of liquid handling devices in drug discovery. Intech.
Felder, R.A. (2014) Automated specimen inspection, quality analysis, and Its impact on patient safety: Beyond the bar code. Clinical Chemistry 60:3 433-434
Johnson, D.M. (2015) Column Packing—Changing Art to Science. GEN 35(12) 24-25
4 Bourbeau, P.P., and Ledeboer, N.A. (2013). Automation in Clinical Microbiology. Journal of Clinical Microbiology 51:6, 1658-1665   
5 Check Hayden, E. (2014) The automated lab. Nature, 516:131-132
6 Chapman, T. (2003) Lab automation and robotics: Automation on the move. Nature 421, 661-666
7 Szymanski, P., Marwowicz, M., and Mikiciuk-Olasik, E. (2011) Adaptation of high-throughput screening in drug discovery—Toxicological screening tests. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2012, 13, 427-452

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