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The Pharma Drug Discovery Industry Should Look Towards Manufacturing as the Blueprint for Automation

Within the manufacturing sector – whether it’s transported, FMCGs, electronics or building materials – a modern approach to automation is already in place. Holistic, flexible and automated processes are being used to carry out a wide range of tasks like formulation, blending, packaging, and cleaning – and enabling them to take place all at the same time.

An industry that can also benefit from automation is pharmaceutical drug discovery. By implementing a similar approach into laboratory spaces as is already happening in manufacturing, it will be possible to increase efficiencies, and ensure that wide-scale, effective automation is in place, and for the long term. Automation is not a new concept for the pharma and drug discovery industries. In fact, it has been used to carry out tasks like library preparation or liquid handling for some time. The real opportunity comes from being able to apply it more flexibly and across entire workflows, as well as for more accurate data collection and analysis. However, change and advancements to date have often been a challenge and the industry has taken a fairly rigid approach to the use of automated technologies. To free scientists’ time away from repetitive tasks and admin and give them more opportunity to work on projects that make the best use of their valuable skills, this modern approach to automation is key. With the continued advancement of technology, more complex processes and even full workflows can now benefit from being automated. This is now allowing scientists to advance work on plate reading and interpretation, for example, and ultimately bring much-needed discoveries to market at a pace that has not been possible until now.

Putting the Focus on Flexibility

It is standard practice in manufacturing for a single tool to be optimised to perform multiple processes at the same time, in what is called a capability-first approach. In contrast, the pharma and drug discovery industries often require one instrument to carry out many tasks without being truly optimised for the specific process. By embracing this capability-first model, single automation tools in the lab will be able to perform multiple processes – such as liquid handing or thermocycling – more efficiently and enable instruments in the lab to work far more flexibly. The same piece of automation technology can be optimised to carry out new tasks when needed, enabling labs to meet the rising demand for new drugs and medicines. What’s more, as batch sizes become smaller and both product lifecycles and time to market both become shorter, increasing efficiencies and optimising any automation tools will be critical. For example, when working with us, one biotech organisation realised that while an automated liquid handler alone worked in an accurate and repeatable way, it couldn’t support the lab to scale and increase throughput. This was partly because the physical lab space limited how many liquid handlers could be installed in the space and because they were using a workflow design that meant processes must happen sequentially rather than in parallel. The result was an expensive piece of equipment, like a liquid handler, becoming a hindrance in many lab setups. If, for example, the liquid handler is waiting on a plate reader or thermocycler to be able to carry out its role, looking at optimising when and how the handler is used can be a valuable way to keep efficiency up.

Connecting the Entire Workflow

The manufacturing industry has also stopped relying solely on workers to move parts between various automated systems and is now making use of technology to connect different parts of the production line. In comparison, lab spaces often have effective automated systems in place, but they stand alone in a ‘partial automation’ model. It’s rare to see a fully connected and automated workflow.