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

Process improvement strategies such as Lean and 6-Sigma were initially created with manufacturing in mind, however these practices have proven useful outside of their intended industry and are growing more popular in areas such as healthcare.

While the goal of lean is to eliminate waste in the form of anything that doesn’t offer value to an end-customer, resulting in increased efficiency, the aim of 6-sigma is to increase consistency, reducing errors. With the need for fast and efficient performance and little to no tolerance for error, it’s very clear how both of these practices can aid in 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—automated equipment and workflows can be applied almost anywhere in the lab. So let’s talk about 3 ways automation can assist your facility in creating a workflow that aligns with your lean and 6-sigma goals.

1. Label Automation Allows For Re-allocation of Resources

Since automated systems can essentially replace human elements, you can shift the usage of space, staff and budget in your facility.

Automation systems can help take on some of the human work, meaning fewer hands are necessary to complete the same task.

With fewer employees focused on labeling and associated tasks like capping and filling for example, workstations, staff and associated budget can be shifted towards more value added opportunities.

While some of these resources will remain necessary post installation—some budget, space and staff will need to be dedicated to the equipment and it’s operation—many facilities find themselves spending less on the equipment than labor and requiring less space and staff post installation.

Freeing up these resources leaves your facility with a variety of options to increase efficiency and promote growth—here are a few examples:

  • Staff can be re-allocated to areas that may be understaffed or where human involvement offers more value.
  • Space can be re-allocated to further automating processes, promoting safer practices by distancing employees or new opportunities to add value.
  • For growing companies, newly available space can be especially valuable in accommodating increased throughput—you may not be looking to add new processes or technologies, but rather finding the space to accommodate the outcomes of higher performance including workspaces, storage and equipment.
  • It’s not uncommon to see a quick ROI with automation. Once your return is met you’ll likely have some capital to spare which can be used to further improve your processes and practices. You may consider investing in further automating sample processing or implementing new technologies such as RFID to further improve efficiency.

The reduced number of hands necessary during processes allows for higher throughput volumes from individual employees so you can accommodate higher demand. This is especially true in cases where hands-free equipment is utilized and automation is worked in throughout your processes.

The reduced need for human intervention in one area of your processes also allows for hands to be moved to more intensive tasks, and helps prepare your facility for times when employee’s may become temporarily unavailable or unexpected circumstances arise. In other words, a few sick days won’t cost as much in terms of performance.

2. Label Automation Reduces the Opportunity for Human Error

In addition to making room for higher performance, automation reduces the number of human touchpoints on say, a piece of labware resulting in lower opportunity for error.

Label automation, for example, can be integrated into other workflows with the assistance of robotic arms. The more the containers themselves are handled by automated processes—and the less they make contact with people—the less likely it is mistakes will be made.

With label automation alone, likelihood for error is reduced by ensuring labware items are marked accurately and labels applied precisely. In combination with an automated workflow, items can be sorted, filled and capped appropriately by ensuring they follow a direct path from station to station.

Barcodes or RFID tags further ensure accuracy through scanning of 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.

Further, in areas where manual handling is necessary gloves are often worn for sample safety. Some parts of the labeling process (or sample processing) can be made especially difficult when gloves are worn—labels stick to gloves creating lost time, unnecessary waste and increased risk of errors.

Essentially, automated workflows provide both error proofing and error identification by keeping samples on a straight path from start to finish and providing frequent scans. While 6 sigma was created with error reduction in mind, in the healthcare industry any errors at all are typically unacceptable making a built in error proofing strategy especially helpful.

3. Automation Enables Efficiency and Error Reduction to Coexist

Increased speed can result in a decrease in quality if executed incorrectly, which is simply not acceptable in the healthcare industry. With automated workflows in place there are simply fewer variances allowing error proofing and efficiency promotion to coexist.

When it comes to label automation, identification and placement errors are greatly reduced. This ensures the safety and accuracy of your sample identification while simultaneously preventing waste and bottlenecks later on that could otherwise lead to reduced throughput. Not only are labels consistently placed with precision and accuracy for error proofing purposes, throughput levels benefit from increased consistency as well.

While some automated equipment guarantees a constant speed through hands free operation, partially automated equipment that does involve operation will also improve the consistency of throughput by completing certain steps at a constant speed—this applies to automated equipment beyond labeling.

With samples precisely and accurately marked they can move through workflows with increased confidence, reducing the likelihood of throughput lowering stoppages—resulting in a workflow with both increased efficiency and fewer opportunities for error.

Lean and 6-sigma practices tick two of the most critical boxes in the medical industry—efficiency and accuracy making either or both a great fit for the lab despite their roots in manufacturing. If your facility is considering aligning with 6-sigma, lean or both practices an investment in automation is worth considering.

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 (time, space, budget, employee time, improperly handled samples etc.) Whether you’re just starting out on your automation journey, or are considering expanding an existing workflow—label automation provides consistent identification throughout your processes.

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