An efficient workflow makes a decisive contribution to the success of a contract laboratory – regardless of its size. The optimum handling of laboratory samples at the beginning of the process chain saves time and money. However, automation is not the only answer. LABVOLUTION and BIOTECHNICA will provide detailed insights into the potential for streamlining laboratory processes. LABVOLUTION is the leading European trade fair for innovative laboratory equipment and workflow optimization. Augmented by the special display " smartLAB – the intelligent laboratory of the future ", LABVOLUTION will focus on future networking and integration scenarios.

"Workflow optimization must be accepted and applied by the entire team. It cannot be implemented overnight and in most cases the benefits are not immediately apparent," says Dr. Sascha Beutel, Group Leader at the Institute of Technical Chemistry at Leibniz University in Hannover. "Becoming accustomed to new procedures takes time. But in the end everyone benefits from a process which conserves resources and saves time. Important factors include the reduction in processing steps, as well as the physical distances between the laboratory work stations and the elimination of potential sources of error."

Molecular diagnosis laboratories incur high running costs. Major investments – e.g. the purchase of a PCR system or the conversion from home-brew solutions to expensive diagnostic kits – require careful planning. Seemingly cheap options may not pay off in the longer term.

As a rule the pre-analysis phase is the most expensive and time-consuming. Incoming samples differ considerably in terms of type (FFPE, blood, cytological preparations), quality, volume and concentration. To avoid errors the pre-analytic steps have to be performed quickly and in a standardized way.

In small, non-automated laboratories the various processing steps can be "nested". In other words, the technician can use the idle times that occur during centrifuging, washing and denaturing to process further samples and prepare stock solutions. With an established routine and the correct positioning of the equipment it is possible to achieve a seamless manual workflow.

Medium and large-sized laboratories can reap the advantages of partial or complete automation. Nucleic acid analysis is a good example. RNA sequencing involves a large number of labour-intensive steps and is particularly prone to errors due to the small volumes involved. The frequent purification of the intermediate products using magnetic particles is extremely time-consuming. In such cases automation delivers clear benefits in terms of time, quality and reagent consumption. Depending on the volume of samples handled by the laboratory, it may be worthwhile implementing additional automation steps (e.g. assay setup and PCR).

Laboratories must take decisive action before stress levels and workloads reach unacceptable limits. Workflow analysis is the first key step on the way to process automation. Lean management techniques pioneered in industry are also applicable to the laboratory sector. The goal is to analyze samples quickly and efficiently in keeping with the principle "work smarter not harder". Consulting firms provide valuable professional support in this context. For their part manufacturers such as Qiagen offer special equipment platforms and technical expertise. Qiagen's Strategic Lab Consultancy (SLC) service, for example, simulates the customer's specific workflow as a basis for developing customized software solutions.

Step tracking is a simple method to ascertain whether or not laboratory samples are being processed efficiently. A smartphone or wearable app measures the distance covered during a typical day. Measurements have revealed distances of up to seven kilometres – equivalent to one hour's walking. By restructuring the laboratory layout it is possible to shorten these distances, save time and reduce the risk of contamination to the samples. Further options for streamlining the workflow include digitalization and staff training.

The special display "smartLAB" under the umbrella of LABVOLUTION in Hannover will give insights into the laboratory of the future. The focus here will be on flexible integration, digital networking, automation, robots, functional surfaces and modular concepts. Under the leadership of the Institute of Technical Chemistry at Leibniz University, Hannover, leading players in industry and research have pooled their know-how in order to create a seamlessly digitized setup consisting of an interactive dispenser, a QR code scanner, a 3D printer (selective laser sintering, SLS) and an induction charging station for mobile devices. The interactive elements include a robot arm certified for human-machine interaction in the laboratory, an app that gives observers direct access to the lab information management system (LIMS), and a telepresence robot that allows third parties to stand virtually at the laboratory workbench. smartLAB will convincingly demonstrate that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The benefits derive from the interplay of the individual components.