Lab automation has been an active topic since the ’90s. In the early days, a robotic arm took over tasks from the lab technician. As time passed, automation of the process itself became the way forward. Clinical chemistry labs were reimagined with tracks of automated centrifuges, aliquoting, decapping and sample analysis for impressive gains in throughput.

Now, automated storage of biobank specimens is becoming increasingly available. In some cases, it’s a perfect match, but is this really what the majority of biobanks should look for? The scientists of Thermo Fisher Scientific understand that every biobank is unique, with specific requirements. As cold storage technology evolves along different pathways, intersecting and pressing forward, automated and manual solutions each have their uses.

Is automation the right fit?

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%.1 Of course, throughput isn’t the only consideration. Factors to examine include:

  • Clear indication of capacity

  • Available space/footprint

  • Energy usage

  • The number of requests for samples

  • Available maintenance resources

  • Annual operating costs

  • Redundancy plans

  • Take a broad view and consider all perspectives

When making the decision to automate, it is important to have a good overview of all the various steps in the process. From collection to storage and retrieval of the sample, to potential bottlenecks, could these elements be solved using automation? Given the many dependencies, planning for user requirements should include not only the biobank team, but also other stakeholders such as researchers, clinicians and financial and IT specialists.


Behind the scenes: the technical challenges of automation

Implementation of automation can be daunting. A recent paper in Frontiers in Medicine describes the challenges encountered by the Biobank of the University Hospitals and the Catholic University of Leuven. The team says it took about four years to effectively take the systems into production, with multiple issues contributing to the delayed implementation, including quality of the initial installation and misunderstanding of biobank concerns. For more details, read Linsen et al (2020) “Automated Sample Storage in Biobanking to Enhance Translational Research: The Bumpy Road to Implementation.”

At Europe Biobank Week 2019 in a workshop on automated storage, technical challenges related to the ultra-low temperature environment were discussed. One issue is icing, which results in higher operational and maintenance costs and increased demands on employee time. Do you have the funding and staff to accommodate bumps in the road?

Manual technology is also forward-looking.

Advances in materials and engineering have increased capacity per manual freezer, which therefore lowers the amount of space needed in the lab, lowers energy consumption, decreases noise and reduces the use of HC refrigerants. The past decade’s evolution of manual cold storage means that for many biobanks it will tick the required boxes.

Reliability in temperature control is proven. In combination with 2D barcoded tubes, it is perfectly possible to store your precious samples under controlled and standardized conditions to maintain high quality.

Agility is another advantage. An unexpected change in capacity (for example due to the global pandemic) can be realized in a matter of days or weeks. A flexible environment further enables the service component of biobanks to drive research and breakthroughs.

Looking beyond the vial to what’s vital.

Through the years, evidence has accumulated to show how lab automation contributes to greater efficiency and shorter turnaround times. This could apply to your biobank, depending on your unique requirements. However, automation shouldn’t be a goal on its own. In many cases, a stepwise approach of manual cold storage is still a very sustainable and proven way forward, both economically and from an environmental perspective. Beyond increasing capacity for samples, manual cold storage has increased biobanking’s capacity for life-changing and life-saving discoveries.

At Thermo Fisher Scientific, we see your potential and we share your vision. Our biobanking experts can help you choose the solutions that are right for your operation.

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