The Full-Scale Implementation of Automation in a Small Casework Laboratory
In late 2008, the Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner Forensic Laboratory (ACOME FL) began the full-scale conversion to automation with increased use of information technology within the workflow of the Forensic Biology Section. As part of a federally-funded grant, through the National Institute of Justice, to enhance efficiency within forensic laboratories, the Forensic Biology process was evaluated for bottlenecks which could be alleviated through the application of automation and computer systems. Several points in the process which introduced inefficiency were identified. Those areas included microscopic examination of sexual assault samples; sample extraction for DNA processing; and set-up for quantitation, amplification, and capillary electrophoresis, as well as DNA data analysis. All of the identified bottlenecks possessed the characteristics suitable for automation: work intensive and highly repetitive. The addition of new chemistries was also planned; they were intended to optimize the amount of information obtained from a sample, while also identifying the most advantageous inlet into the DNA workflow for the samples being processed. The chemistries included a Y-STR kit and a male/autosomal quantitation kit. Information technology and data manipulation were addressed through the implementation of a DNA-specific Laboratory Information Management System (DLIMS), the creation of a dedicated computer network for the DNA workflow, and a genetic calculator to aid in the time-consumptive data analysis. Through the course of executing the restructuring of the DNA process in the small-casework laboratory of Allegheny County, a number of observations were made on how to improve laboratory efficiency in an efficient manner.
Careful attention must be paid when creating the process map of the new automated paradigm and how different aspects of the new instrumentation and chemistries fit into the intended workflow. The impact of areas beyond casework analysis must all be considered when selecting the appropriate platforms for your laboratory. The selection of the robotics platform must reflect on the technical capabilities of the staff. Some automated systems require a great deal of technical knowledge to build methods as well as maintain the instrument. The technical capabilities required to successfully operate the more involved platforms can be quite extensive, and a lack of technical aptitude can lead to a difficult validation process and result in a learning curve which slows the implementation of robotics, negatively impacting efficiency. The robotic needs of the laboratory must also be factored into the selection of automation. The robotic platform chosen should also be useful for the analysis performed within the laboratory; the type of samples which the laboratory processes must be taken into consideration, so that a suitable automated platform can be selected to address all sample types within the laboratory. In this laboratory, the increased processing of low level DNA samples requires a robotic system not subject to contamination, while still producing high quality results. A robotic system that was capable of adequately processing low level samples, which constitutes approximately 30% of our DNA caseload, as well as stain level samples, would have been more beneficial to the efficiency of the forensic biology workflow. The choice of robotics should also remain consistent in the platforms utilized in the laboratory, when possible. Selecting multiple robotic platforms requires time-intensive validation for each one, as well as more training for each analyst to gain competency on the robots. This effect does not end with the implementation of robotics but continues to affect the training of each new DNA analyst. Moreover, maintaining multiple systems creates layers of time consuming quality control steps that must be performed at regular intervals (i.e., weekly, monthly, annually, biannually). Each robotic platform requires quality actions that remove analysts from participation in casework, decreasing the efficiency of the process, while eating away at costly reagents and consumables.