Automating Your Sample Collection for Biobanking: 10 Things to Consider

Posted by Kathleen Groover, Ph.D on Oct 30, 2013 11:15:00 AM

How do you determine if your inventory is automation-friendly?  Chances are, if you didn’t launch your biobank with automation in mind, or if a large percentage of your inventory is legacy collections, you’ve got some serious challenges ahead of you. If your focus is managing labor costs, automation may or may not be all or part of the answer.  As a starting point, give considerable thought to the issues presented here.

 1. Automation is faster than humans, right? 

Surprisingly, humans are just as fast—if not faster—than automation for workflows that require a series of complicated movements or are separated by significant floor space.  Robots are faster with highly precise movements with very few variables:  additional decision points or variations in movement costs precious time, every time.  Many, if not most, tasks can be done by people much more quickly than by robots.

The benefit of automation is in the accuracy of picking and pulling, and the fact that robots can work day and night.  If your collection is not automation-friendly, robotic assistants are not the answer to managing labor costs. 

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Be realistic and don’t assume anything.  As with personal computers, robots are literal. They are only as successful as we, the humans, are at programming what we want done, and in what order.  Accept that compromises will be needed to achieve the intended results.  Variables in your process, in the materials to be handled and in the intended outcome can halt your progress toward implementation of robotic processes and leave you wondering where it all went wrong.  However, with good planning, the best balance between human physical intervention and automation advances can be found.

 container sizes2. What sizes are your primary containers? 

If you’re beginning to make a list of all your vial sizes in your mind, you’ve identified your first hurdle.  Variety in vial sizes and types requires a flexible automation platform that includes multiple handling arms, grippers, and sizes of destination containers.  Before you know it, your automated equipment needs have doubled or tripled. 

 3. Are the lids uniform?

Do your vials have the same type of lid?  If not, you may need to plan to have the robot grip somewhere other than the lid in moving it from point A to point B.  Perhaps thawing and moving materials into more uniform containers before trying to automate is the way to go—but now we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before thinking about different types of grippers, put some additional thought into the basics of your collection.

 4. Do your origination and destination boxes/racks stack up?automation boxes resized 600

Automation works better with rigid materials and easily defined X, Y and Z coordinates.  Rigid plastic boxes and grids are more automation-ready.  Even better are vials in an origination rack that is in SBS format.  This is the basic automation footprint and is standardized across many platforms.  If your collection is currently configured in SBS format, you will not have to reconfigure to accept output destination racks in this format.

 If your vials are in less expensive cardboard boxes and grids, then you used good cost control measures at the onset of your biobank, but making these containers automation-ready will require some modification.  Now you’re back to thinking about moving samples into different containers.

 5. What about your barcodes?

Barcodes present a number of issues. For instance:

  • Are there barcodes on the boxes and is the origination container defined in your inventory system?  If the containers have embedded barcodes you may be good to go.

  • Do all your labels have the same type of barcode or do you have a mix of linear and 2D barcodes? 

  • Do you have the same number of barcodes on all your materials and are the formats of the ID the same? Is the barcode in the same place on each container? 

  • Does the barcode content link to a unique identifier in your inventory database? 
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Download the eBook below to learn more about automating your biobank collection. 

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