Many forensic laboratories are turning to automation to increase sample throughput, but also to realize improvements in reliability and reproducibility of sample processing. In our last article (February/March 2009), we discussed the capabilities and features of small automated extraction instruments. While these instruments are quick to implement, easy-to-use, reliable, and offer modest increases in sample extraction throughput, they are limited in that they perform only DNA extraction. While automation of extraction removes one bottleneck, it also exposes throughput limitations inherent to the rest of the sample processing workflow. The remaining processes, including quantitative PCR setup, sample normalization, and STR reaction setup, require precision liquid handling, something the small automated extraction instruments can’t address.
In order to alleviate bottlenecks throughout the entire forensic sample processing workflow, it’s necessary to adopt automated liquid handling instrumentation that can perform not only genomic DNA extraction, but also the more challenging task of lowvolume pipetting. Implementation and use of automated liquid handlers offers the promise of automating all of the steps in the forensic laboratory sample processing workflow, but also presents a number of challenges that labs must understand and overcome. In this article we will provide cautions, share realities, and make suggestions for the successful adoption of automated liquid handlers as part of a laboratory sample processing workflow.
Suggestion 1: Identify your laboratory’s goals in adopting automation.
There are a number of questions that any lab needs to answer when considering the purchase of an automated liquid handler. What does the lab hope to accomplish by adopting automation? Are you interested in reducing backlogs of reference samples through an increase in sample processing throughput? Is the robot going to replace tedious, time-consuming, error-prone tasks? Is the robot going to fit within your current laboratory workflow or are you going to change the way you process samples to fit what works best for the robot? Is the number of samples which can be extracted in a single day crucial, or is it most critical to take an entire set of samples from extraction to analysis? Does your lab always process the same number of samples per plate, or is flexibility in sample number important? Is the availability of pre-developed and supported methods important or are you comfortable developing your own automated methods?
The answers to these questions may not be on the tip of your tongue, especially if you are considering lab automation for the first time. Taking the time to think about the laboratory goals and processes in order to answer these questions will help to define your reasons for automating your laboratory processes. In identifying the scale of automation, you should consider how the robot will fit into your workflow and what current processes will need to change. While these are just a subset of the questions that you should consider before contacting automation companies, they shouldn’t deter you from pursuing automation for your laboratory.
Suggestion 2: Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
There are a number of resources available to help answer your questions about automation. First and foremost among these are your peers. In fact, there are a large number of laboratories that have experience with automation on many different scales. Some labs have automated portions of their laboratory workflow with pre-developed methods on either small automated extraction instruments or automated liquid handlers. Others have struck out on their own and developed automated methods for either a portion or all of their laboratory’s workflow processes. Still others have chosen a hybrid approach, taking pre-developed methods for some processes and supplementing these with selfdeveloped methods for other processes. Whatever type and scale of automation you are considering, there is another lab out there that can provide support, point out potential pitfalls, and supply the voice of experience. Try to survey as many of your colleagues as possible; every lab has had unique experiences with automation suppliers, chemistry companies, implementation, and validation of automated instruments and methods. These conversations will help you to gather information and make educated decisions regarding automation.
Reagent and instrument companies can also provide information, experience, and support for automation questions. Many of these companies have experience automating forensic laboratory processes at multiple throughput levels on a variety of robotic platforms and can address any questions, issues, or concerns you might have. Of course, it is always important to compare and be critical of the information that you receive from all sources, vendors and fellow scientists alike, as thoughts and opinions will vary.
Suggestion 3: You will need to develop automation experts in your lab.
Liquid handling robots are inherently complex instruments and require a significant amount of know-how to use effectively. The most important “accessory” that you will want for your new liquid handling robot is a laboratory automation expert. Be aware that not everyone in your lab will feel comfortable using the robot. There are generally one or two people that have an aptitude for or interest in learning how to use and maintain the automated liquid handler. Typically those individuals are designated to develop methods and to run and maintain the robot. While reagent and instrument companies provide basic training during installation, it is typically insufficient for proficiency in the use and care of automated liquid handlers. Instrument companies offer additional training courses at basic and advanced levels that are extremely beneficial. The laboratory should budget to have the automation experts attend at least one if not more of these training courses to ensure a smooth transition. The information your automation experts learn will be well worth the time and cost of the additional training. The course(s) will familiarize them with the robotic software language, provide an understanding of what the robot can and can’t do, teach them how to recover from errors and instrument crashes, and give them a feel for when a problem can be solved by the lab and when it requires a service call. While training is important, equally critical to their effectiveness is time for them to work with the robot. Like most skills, without frequent use automation expertise will be lost over time.