In today’s fast-paced world, automated processes and workflows are being designed and installed more frequently than ever before—and for good reason! Automating any process instantly provides tangible business benefits by way of increased throughput, greater accuracy, consistency, and improved control. The question often then becomes, how much of a process can and should be automated, and at what point do integrations make sense?
While processes like liquid handling, pipetting, or even diagnostic staining are commonly automated in the healthcare industry, we often find that subsequent or supporting processes like labeling and barcoding are overlooked when it comes to planning for workflow automation. As a result, many facilities are forced to either retrofit systems or manually apply labels, which tends to counteract some of the benefits achieved during prior automated processing.
Making barcode labeling a priority and thinking through your workflow holistically upfront, rather than as an afterthought, can benefit your automation integration process in a number of ways and ensure full optimization of the time, budget and physical space needed for automation. We paired up with our automation partners at PaR Systems to compile this list of our top 10 considerations to make when thinking through your own automation plan. Check out our list below, and cheers to working smarter, faster, and more strategically!
1. Consider the full picture of your processes and project
It can be hard to figure out where to start when planning an automation strategy—the only real place to start is right here and right now.
Paint a picture of your processes from start to finish and look at it from a strategic perspective—from opening bulk labware to how it needs to be presented before delivery to your end user. Look for areas in your workflows where things are flowing smoothly and identify any bottlenecks. If you’re considering automation it’s very likely you’ve already done this to some degree.
Think about the effect these areas have on your processes and product. Are operators hand-picking and placing every vial to be labeled? Are operators visually inspecting every label for readability? From there, you’ll want to define what success would look like. If you build and implement a system to address these pain points, what would make it successful?
Defining not only your problem, but what success looks like early on will lead the entire project beyond just addressing an issue, and in the direction of overall success.
2. Get into the weeds with your product life-cycle
What does the entire lifecycle of your product look like? From the very beginning of your workflow to end use, your labware is going to go through a lot. Making sure it’s prepared for each and every step along the way from the very beginning will optimize efficiency and user-friendliness at every stage.
Build a map of your workflows. What does your product look like at the very beginning? Where does each workflow occur? Where do they come together and how? Are pieces moving through an automated process? A manual one? Taking an objective view of how your product flows through your systems will not only highlight areas of improvement, but the most effective ways to make those improvements.
A key consideration when reflecting on your own process is product feeding. Whether labware is fed manually or automatically to and from your equipment will greatly impact your overall solution in a variety of ways. You’ll need to ensure the dimensions, software, product input and output are suited to your existing systems. Keeping this in mind is necessary to create an efficient system that is compatible with your needs.
What happens next? Who is using your product? How is it being used? Keeping in mind that the point of use may be outside of your facility, you’ll want to ensure your product is prepared to perform optimally for everyone who comes into contact with it.
Take into account any special requirements your containers may need to meet—regulatory, physical, data etc. Your labware and barcodes may need to survive extreme conditions, meet legal requirements or be organized in a specific way.
When it comes to label automation, a key consideration at this point is label construction. You may currently be using a specific label because it’s capable of withstanding certain chemical exposures or conditions. Not every label is suitable for automation for various reasons so it’s possible you’ll need to plan to alter your label strategy in order to accommodate both your new equipment and existing use requirements.
Not only do you need to consider these factors in your build to avoid negatively impacting use requirements—but you may be able to identify opportunities to improve the experience for your end users.
For example, let’s say you’re preparing tubes for a test that requires two tubes. Let’s design the automation to place tubes in sets of two in a rack. Or, maybe each workstation in a lab processes fourteen samples at a time. Your automation system could be designed to sort and rack containers into groups of fourteen.
When you keep the entire life cycle of your product in mind throughout the planning of your automation system, you can prepare your labware for later steps in processing and use early on in your processes. This can be especially helpful when end-users are outside of your facility. By integrating their needs into your systems you pass the benefits of your automation onto them, improving their experience with your product and building trust.
3. Think even bigger picture
Even bigger than the equipment or labeled containers themselves, think about the quality improvements that will come as a result of an automated process.
One of the main reasons automation is implemented in the first place is for time and resource savings. Especially when it comes to labeling, since it is such a laborious and tedious task. Freeing up employee time and hands, as well as real estate is incredibly valuable—but take time to consider what to do with those available resources. It’s very likely your employees are skilled professionals, and with reduced effort in preparatory work they’ll have time to focus on tasks that impact your mission more directly.
Another benefit to your employees are the ergonomic gains. Now that you have equipment to take on the more tedious and repetitive tasks, issues like repetitive strain injury are less of a liability.
With more precise label placement compared to manual labeling, the traceability of your samples will be improved. Barcodes will scan faster and more consistently in downstream automated workflows. As items are scanned automatically, processes connect and flow in a more streamlined way. On it’s own this is a benefit—but it can also be viewed as an opportunity. You can further optimize traceability by integrating tools like RFID.
We’ll talk more in depth about this later on, but product quality improvements are also on the table. Integrating product and label inspection and verification tools into your system can prevent losses down the line.
Reporting and forecasting are simplified with automation. Less is left to chance or human performance limitations. Measuring your results will become easier, ultimately allowing you to make better guided business decisions based on data.
You might also want to think about additional opportunities for automation. Labeling may be one pain point in your process, but stacking, sorting, kitting, inspecting and other labware prep related tasks might be taking away from more valuable work as well. Evaluate if there are additional areas in your workflow that might benefit from automation either now or in the future.
4. Determine early on who will project manage and keep things on track/within budget
Managing your project properly is critical to your success. The biggest decision that needs to be made is whether you manage the project internally, or find a partner who will own the project and relationships with other industry experts & integrators.
Your decision is most likely going to be based on your own internal resources—do you have a team prepared to take on the project? Do you have existing relationships with industry experts? What does your budget look like?
Utilizing your internal resources to manage your project can be feasible if you have the labor and expertise to support it. Existing relationships with necessary industry professionals will also simplify managing your project.
This process is time and labor intensive, so without the proper tools it can take valuable time away from existing business matters. On the other hand, internal involvement can ensure details and subject-matter-expertise are kept top of mind throughout the project.
Working with a single supplier who will own and project manage the full scope of work can take a major load off your team. While it can be difficult to leave your project in the hands of another, the goal of a solutions partner is to utilize their expertise and industry relationships to provide you with the best possible results.
Evaluate your resources, relationships and solutions providers to make sure you make the best decision to ensure your project stays on track, within budget and meets expectations.
5. Consider how data should be leveraged
The main goal of any barcoding and labeling strategy is to store your data in a way that is both secure and easy to trace. Pairing your system with the right software is absolutely necessary to ensure your data can flow accurately and securely from your operating system to your labels, and back.
Communicating your connectivity needs to your automation provider and label supplier is crucial to ensure they can build a solution that can easily integrate into your existing workflow. But, before you go to your supplier, get IT involved to make sure your plan is compatible with their requirements as well.
Outline what your system looks like today and note any changes you plan on making (if there are any.) A few questions you might want to have answers to are:
- What data-points will you be tracking?
Barcode #, Lot #, time & date tracking etc.
- Where will your data be stored? In what database?
- How does your data move—forwards and backwards—between your database and equipment?
- Where does your data end up? What does it look like in its final form? Is it accessible? Easy to interpret?
- How do you envision leveraging data related to automation performance?
- What quality metrics are tied to data provided as a result of automated processes?
Outlining and organizing your data needs and making sure all necessary parties are in the loop will ensure a compatible, efficient and secure result.
6. Consider external factors & trends
Current industry trends such as LEAN manufacturing, miniaturization, RFID and, yes, even automation, are only expected to gain momentum. Take time to look deeper into trending technologies. Whether that means exploring newer technologies or taking a more intense look at familiar trends.
The current trends we mentioned above are all closely related in their shared goal of creating a smarter lab where both data and product, connect and flow, quickly and efficiently. Speed, accuracy and precision are relevant to any lab so it’s no wonder these technologies are trending.
The most important thing to consider when looking into innovative trends or technologies is how compatible they might be with your processes. This part is going to take some research on both you and your partners’ side. While the popularity of things like miniaturization, smart labs, IoT etc. can be directly attributed to their broad success—there are limitations.
One example that comes to mind is with RFID. While the technology is rapidly evolving to overcome these hurdles, interference with liquids, metals and nearby radio waves is a genuine issue. When implementing an RFID strategy your partner should be familiar enough to help you work around any obstacles, but it’s important to keep in mind that your end solution may not be what you initially envisioned—or even a possibility.
This not only applies to RFID, but any technological trend. Due in great part to widespread support, trending technologies tend to evolve quite rapidly. This means that something that may not be feasible for your facility today, may be in the near future. But don’t take this as a reason to hold back!
Integrating new and innovative technologies into your solution is a good way to stay ahead of the game, ensure your processes are future proofed and remain up to date for years to come. Many of these trends, particularly LEAN practices, impact the quality, safety and ergonomics of your processes. All of which will offer immediate benefits and returns over time.
7. Outline your quality expectations & goals
What is the biggest threat to the viability of your product? How can that threat be reduced or eliminated? Integrating an inspection system into your equipment insures the integrity of your samples—one of the best ways to do this is by working it into your automation.
First things first—research your partner’s quality checking and validation capabilities. Taking time to ensure your supplier is able to meet your quality standards prior to any serious discussion will prevent a lot of trouble down the road.
With your partner, assess your needs from multiple viewpoints—process flows, environmental requirements, regulations, downstream processes, exposures, product value etc.—to identify areas where increased quality preservation measures make the most sense.
Once you’re ready to move forward you’ll need to work with your partner to build a validation system optimized to your loss prevention needs. Numerous precautionary systems can be integrated into your automation from expiration date validation to accessory data reading cameras and scannability checkpoints.
This is also a good point in time to stop and consider whether or not RFID could be incorporated into your labeling strategy. Preserving the quality of specimens with high value and/or large amounts of data attached to their identity can be simplified through the use of RFID.
RFID tags can also serve as back-up validation to your barcodes. They can store more data, making them a great choice in situations where multiple data-points are being tracked. Additional features such as environmental sensors can also be added to some RFID tags.
Regardless of your identification technology, various factors will determine your quality inspection needs. Choosing a solutions provider who is capable of meeting your needs, identifying and discussing any potential threats to the viability of your product are all critical steps which need to be taken prior to making any design decisions.
8. Think about added benefits like safety & ergonomics
One benefit of automation that likely isn’t top of mind (hats off to you if it is!) is improved safety and ergonomics.
It’s likely your main goals in implementing an automated system are related to resource allocation, throughput and consistency, while a safer more comfortable workplace might seem like an added bonus. While it certainly adds to the value of your automation, this benefit stands on it’s own and should be prioritized during the planning process.
Work with your partner to outline a concept that not only accomplishes your main goal, but is streamlined in a way that prioritizes safety, ergonomics and real estate. This is also a good time to share any additional expectations you may have regarding your goals or the system itself to make sure you and your provider are on the same page.
While employee safety and comfort may seem like a natural bonus of implementing automation, remember these benefits boost efficiency and productivity on their own. Prioritizing these factors in your build can help you maximize the results of a safer process and environment.
9. Speed to market
You’ll want to look at speed to market from a few angles. Ask yourself these three questions:
- How quickly do you need to have your system up and running?
- How important is long-term, consistent speed to market?
- How valuable is product presentation?
The answers to these questions will help you better define how far you want to go when automating your processes.
Any well-planned automated system is going to take time to build and implement—but how long is determined greatly by the level of automation you intend to implement. For example, generally, you’ll be able to get a semi-automated tube and vial labeler installed faster than a fully automated system. You’ll end up waiting even longer if that system proceeds to sort and rack your samples.
Put simply, the more comprehensive your automation system, the longer it’s likely to take to build and implement. If you need a solution as quickly as possible, you’re probably going to lean towards a semi-automated solution vs. a fully automated workflow—depending on how highly you value long term consistency and/or product presentation.
Look further into the future and think about how important consistently high throughput speeds are to your company. A fully automated solution may take longer to implement—but consistently high throughput speeds will make up for that over time. A fully automated solution is also going to be more likely to hold up to your future growth needs.
Lastly, you’ll want to consider how valuable the presentation of your product is. If your product needs to remain recognizable among similar items or comes into direct contact with end users or patients, presentation is going to play a role in how you build your solution—and as a result how quickly you can roll it out.
It’s possible you may want to integrate further automation—stacking, racking, sorting etc.—into your solution, or maybe add color or branded imagery to your barcoding strategy for presentation purposes. Adding these things will increase the build time, and will offer improved throughput speeds over time if further automation is replacing manual labor—but it will offer value in an improved end user experience—building trust and awareness.
10. Plan for the future
Without a crystal ball we can’t exactly predict the future. Your systems may need to perform differently or accomplish more down the road than they do today. Evaluating trends, expectations and goals surrounding your product can give you and your supplier a forecast of areas in your solution that might benefit from added flexibility.
Plan for product changes, whether or not you expect to see a change in reality. Your solution should be designed with your product in mind, but providing some leeway in terms of dimensions, cosmetics, data collection etc., will ensure it suits your product in the future and can be easily modified as time marches on.
Growth is another factor you need to consider. Your solution can be designed in a way that prepares it for upgrades before they become necessary. Discuss your growth goals with your partner to pinpoint areas where future modifications might be needed to accommodate growth.
By keeping the future in mind throughout the planning and design process, you can avoid building a solution you’ll eventually grow out of and instead build a system adaptable enough to grow with you.
Automating your processes is a sure-fire way to streamline your workflows, prepare for the future and optimize the quality of your products, but there’s a lot to consider to make sure you get the most bang for your buck.
We hope this list can serve as a guide to how you can maximize the results of your automated system as you plan and integrate your custom solution with your supplier.