3 Ways Label Automation Can Align With Lean & 6-Sigma Practices in Laboratories

Most process improvement strategies, including Lean Manufacturing and 6-Sigma, were initially designed to address manufacturing workflows. However, these methodologies translate to nearly any industry and have become especially prevalent in healthcare and life sciences.

Lean manufacturing aims to eradicate waste in the form of anything that doesn’t offer value to an end customer, resulting in increased efficiency. 6-Sigma aims to improve consistency, thereby reducing errors. With the need for fast and efficient performance and little to no tolerance for error, it’s evident how both of these practices can aid in laboratory sample processing—but how exactly can these practices be applied in the lab?

One tool that has proven to assist many labs in implementing leaner practices that align with 6-sigma is automation. From labeling, sorting, and stacking to testing—laboratories can apply automated equipment and workflows. Here, we will focus primarily on automatic label application for laboratory samples. So let’s talk about three ways automation can assist your facility in creating a workflow that aligns with your lean and 6-sigma goals.

1. Reallocate resources in your laboratory by streamlining label application.

Integrating label application with automation can allow you to redistribute your facility’s space, staff, and budget to meet your goals more efficiently. Automation systems can help take on some human work, meaning fewer hands are necessary to complete the same task.

With fewer employees occupied with labeling and associated labware preparation tasks like capping and filling, you can dedicate additional workstations and resources towards more value-added opportunities.

While some of these resources will remain necessary post-installation—including some budget, space, and staff for the equipment and its operation—many facilities spend less on the equipment than they currently spend on labor.

Additionally, automation typically requires less staff post-installation, allowing your scientists to keep their focus. Freeing up these resources leaves your facility with various options to increase efficiency and promote growth.

The reduced number of hands necessary during labeling processes allows for higher throughput volumes from individual employees, enabling you to accommodate higher demand, particularly by using hands-free equipment and integrating automation throughout your workflows.

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2. Label automation can reduce errors and minimize the risk of mislabeled samples.

In addition to making room for higher performance, automation reduces the number of human touchpoints on a piece of labware, resulting in a lower opportunity for error. Integrating multiple automated systems can improve this even further. Label automation, for example, can be integrated into other laboratory workflows with the assistance of robotic handling.

Label automation reduces the likelihood of error by ensuring labware items are marked accurately and labels applied precisely. With an automated workflow, items can be sorted, filled, and capped following a direct path from station to station.

Barcodes or RFID tags further ensure accuracy by scanning samples as they reach each piece of equipment or station. If your equipment scans and identifies a potential error, it can stop and notify an operator to take appropriate action. Furthermore, technicians often wear gloves when handling samples and sample containers. Some parts of the labeling process can be challenging while wearing gloves. The label adhesive frequently sticks to gloves creating lost time, unnecessary waste, and increased risk of errors.

Automated workflows provide error proofing and identification by keeping samples on a straight path from start to finish and giving frequent scans. While 6-sigma specifically targets error reduction, errors in the healthcare industry are typically unacceptable, making a built-in error-proofing strategy especially helpful.

The cab Axon 1 is especially well suited for integrating robotic sample handling in laboratories. Learn more in this review and demo video.

3. Balance error reduction with efficient production with consistent throughput.

Increased speed can decrease quality if executed incorrectly, which is unacceptable in the healthcare industry. With label automation, even high-speed systems can significantly reduce identification and placement errors with intelligent engineering. Fewer variances in automated workflows allow error proofing and efficient production to coexist.

This balance ensures the safety and accuracy of your sample identification while simultaneously preventing waste and bottlenecks that could have led to a reduced throughput. While some automated equipment guarantees a constant speed through hands-free operation, semi-automated equipment will also improve the consistency of throughput by completing specific steps at a constant speed—this applies to automated equipment beyond labeling.

So, with samples precisely and accurately marked, they can move through workflows more confidently, reducing the likelihood of throughput lowering stoppages. If your lab requires extreme throughput levels or production speed, please discuss your needs with an automation specialist. 

Lean and 6-sigma practices tick two of the most critical boxes in the medical industry—efficiency and accuracy. As we discussed, automation has proven to be a helpful tool in reaching goals associated with lean and 6-sigma by reducing errors and waste in many forms, including time, space, budget, and labor. Despite their roots in manufacturing, these methodologies are very well suited for laboratories. If your facility is considering aligning with 6-sigma, lean, or both practices, an investment in automation is worth considering.

Whether you’re just starting your automation journey or considering expanding an existing workflow, label automation provides consistent identification throughout your processes.

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