Wednesday 10 February 2021

What Are the Benefits of Microbiology Automation?


Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine, an online publication discussing the latest news in science and technology. She has over four years experience covering stories in the science, technology and industrial sectors.


Despite the proliferation of automation technology in related laboratory industries, the adoption of automation tech in microbiology labs has remained slow.


Recent innovations from the past few years, however, are encouraging more clinical microbiology labs to adopt automation solutions — and those that have adopted the tech have seen major benefits.


The following is a look at why the industry has remained resistant to automation tech so far, what labs who’ve adopted automated solutions are seeing, and what’s in store for the industry in the next few years.

The Slow Adoption of Microbiology Lab Automation

Barriers to further automation include the relative complexity of microbiology compared to other clinical analytic disciplines.


Microbiology lab specimens can be extraordinarily diverse. These may include samples of blood and urine, which are also common samples in other clinical laboratories. However, you may also find samples of tissue, sterile bodily fluids, prosthetic materials, and “the occasional Mason jar and dessert topping container,” according to one recent minireview of automation in the field.


Automation also can’t truly replace the skills of lab technicians.


For example, bioburden testing, or total viable count testing, measures the microbiological contamination in a given sample and is essential to clinical microbiology work.


One bioburden testing method, the membrane filtration method, is commonly used to test samples for the presence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis — the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. With the method, a sample of phlegm is passed through a filter.


The filter is then placed onto agar and studied with the use of a microscope for the presence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis colonies.


Not all filters are created equally, however. Lab technicians need to decide, for example, on appropriate filter pore size, or whether an EPDM or PTFE filter is more appropriate for a given combination of sample and testing method.


PTFE membranes, which are made from materials like Teflon, are commonly used in pharmaceutical testing, and are typically more resilient than EPDM filters.


EPDM filters, by contrast, are suitable for a wide range of fluids and are cheaper than PTFE filters, which may make them more appropriate for some cases.


These decisions are difficult to automate. The optimal answer may depend on a wide variety of variables and could be limited by available equipment, lab budget, and technician skill sets.


Some manual tasks are also impossible to fully automate, even if there’s no serious decision-making that lab staff have to make.


In recent years, however, things have started to change. Both new tech and shifts in the industry have promoted the development of new automation solutions and encouraged labs to invest in those solutions.


For example, laboratories have consolidated, and larger laboratories tend to benefit more from automation. A tight labor market and growing industry skills gap has also meant many labs are short- or under-staffed. Many in the industry believe this problem will get worse before it improves.


At the same time, the adoption of new microbiological detection techniques, like MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry, have made microbiological tests more uniform and easier to automate as a result.

Key Benefits of Microbiology Automation

New developments in laboratory automation have yielded a few major benefits for the labs that have adopted the tech.


For example, the recent major innovation of automated real-time PCR testing, which can rapidly detect nucleic acids indicative of certain infectious diseases and cancer, offers extremely high sample throughput with less labor than manual systems.


These systems can provide fast, simple, and effective detection of various diseases — helping streamline the processes of diagnosis and disease control. This can help both reduce laboratory workloads and cut down on testing costs.


TLA, or total laboratory automation systems — in which pre-analysis, analysis, and post-analysis can all happen with minimal technician intervention — can offer further benefits for laboratories.


Automated data collection, if a system can totally automate a test, may help provide more accurate data and improved data entry efficiency. Both are good for traceability initiatives, as they help to reduce errors and generally speed up the process of microbiological testing.

Using Automation to Manage the Microbiology Skills Gap


Reducing the overall workload placed on laboratory staff is also an essential benefit for laboratory managers. Trained medical laboratory professionals are in short supply. And over the past few years, there’s been no real sign that the microbiology skills gap is growing smaller.


Clinical laboratories can benefit significantly from automation tech that helps reduce the workload on limited staff — and, in some cases, may even be able to save labor hours equivalent to what a full-time employee could provide.


The tech helps labs save money on labor and frees up highly skilled technicians for more important work that requires human decision-making skills, or complex manual tasks that can’t be automated yet.


Other, more minor, benefits of laboratory automation include savings on laboratory consumables. The consistency of lab automation tech, for example, can help reduce spillages and misuse of lab cultures like agar, helping to reduce lab waste and save money.

The Future of Microbiology Laboratory Automation

There are still major barriers to adopting automation tech for some microbiology labs.


The cost efficiency of automation, for example, can be an issue. As in other fields, initial capital investments necessary for automated solutions can be high. Even if a piece of automated lab equipment can save money in the long run, it may be hard to justify that spending if potential savings aren’t high enough.


Still, so long as the clinical microbiology industry faces a skills gap and a tight labor market, they’ll need to find ways to reduce labor costs and cut down on the workload placed on current technicians.

Future laboratory automation development will likely focus on total laboratory automation, which can handle testing from start to finish. At the same time, the industry at large may look for ways to streamline and standardize tests, making them easier to automate.

Posted by Dr. Tim Sandle, Pharmaceutical Microbiology Resources (

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