Unlocking lab space through automation

The UK Government’s decade-long vision to establish itself as a global leader in life sciences has ignited ambitious growth plans for organisations of all sizes across the sector. The targets span diverse domains, ranging from genomics to synthetic biology. However, a significant obstacle looms over this potential success – the scarcity of suitable lab space for rapidly expanding enterprises.

Recent data provided by consultancy firm Bidwells reveals a concerning trend in lab availability, with just 10,000 square feet of lab space available in Cambridge against a demand of two million, and a mere 25,000 square feet in Oxford compared to businesses needing 845,000 square feet. 

This shortage poses a substantial risk to the thriving life sciences sector, potentially delaying cutting-edge work. The consequences could even prompt investors to shift their focus to cities like Boston, rich in life sciences institutions and abundant in immediate lab space availability.

To ensure the continued growth of the UK’s life sciences sector, the country needs to unlock new lab capacity to keep up with the demand in the sector. This entails maximising the value derived from each square metre of lab area. Automation is becoming a pivotal solution, because lab technicians can unlock their spaces and achieve great things even in a small footprint.

Maximising potential through automation

Traditionally, lab automation solutions have been bulky, complex, and costly, accessible only to larger labs. Additionally, the normal remedy for boosting lab throughput involved hiring more scientists and technicians. However, this approach becomes unfeasible when lab space is at a premium. Instead, a shift towards a modular, interoperable model is required.

Automation tools are now far more accessible and adaptable, catering to labs of all sizes and stages of automation. There are now automated lab benches that have been designed to be completely open by eliminating the need for space-consuming barriers, meaning people can work safely alongside the automated bench. In fact, there are available with the same footprint as standard benches, providing labs with necessary automation without adding to space constraints. 

Automated solutions also offer the advantage of functioning during off-hours, maximising the use of space. This extended operation time enables additional productivity even after employee shifts end. While some automation processes still require human intervention, many can function autonomously, freeing up employees for more creative tasks – or to simply go home for the evening while an array continues to run.

The power of modularity

A modular approach is crucial for expanding lab space. Automation systems can be flexibly adapted to evolving needs and functions. A single automated station, for instance, can execute multiple processes. For example Automata’s modular automation solutions not only empower labs to reclaim space but also encourage unconventional approaches to work.

Much like assembling a Lego set, automation-enabled benches can be configured in various shapes to suit diverse lab spaces. This adaptability is invaluable, especially for smaller or uniquely shaped labs. By repurposing equipment for different tasks, labs can consistently meet the demand for new pharmaceuticals and stay ahead of shortened product life cycles.

Unlocking potential

Safeguarding the UK’s scientific excellence necessitates unlocking constrained lab space. Adequate lab areas are imperative for swiftly introducing groundbreaking innovations, whether in cell-cultured products or life-saving medicines. With the latest approach to open, integrated automation, scientists can employ automated modular solutions to adapt to shifting needs, enhance scalability, and remain globally competitive in the life sciences arena.

Daniel Siden

Daniel Siden is Director of Robotics Platform at Automata, Product Engineering & Design. Daniel is a technology entrepreneur and design director with 18 years of experience building design & technology lead businesses with multi-disciplinary creative and engineering teams to produce physical and digital technology-driven products and services.

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