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Age of Automation to Transform Food Labs
by J. Stan Bailey
The food lab of the future will be all about the rise of the machines.
That’s not to say their human counterparts will be obsolete, but automation and workflow optimization, driven by lab technicians, will be the name of the game. In addition, flexibility will be a key factor as new potential threats to the food supply emerge.
Because food safety is a significant public health issue—and likely to continue to be one in the future—it will be important for the food producers and manufacturers of tomorrow to seek more advanced, comprehensive, and science-based, yet flexible, approaches to ensuring the safety of their products.
An Automated Future
A machine of the future wouldn’t be much of a machine without automation.
Most innovations in microbiology instrumentation are focused on reducing the hands-on time needed in the lab. By automating previously manual steps in the process, testing companies are able to streamline pre-analytical workflows and provide value to food laboratories.
Testing companies have already recognized the need for automation. For example, bioMérieux, a leader in the field of in vitro diagnostics, introduced VIDAS, the first automated pathogen detection system, and followed that up by launching TEMPO, the first automated enumeration system for quality indicators.
Advances such as these will only continue in the automated future.
The reason? Automation can ultimately enhance both the efficiency and quality of data from laboratories. Every aspect of food safety testing that can be automated increases the quality of the subsequent data by decreasing the chance for human error.
In addition, automation allows data to be accessed immediately from a central location, increasing lab efficiency and quality and, ultimately, speeding product release decisions.
By eliminating obstacles and inefficiencies while centralizing data, the lab of the future will be able to reduce turnaround time, improve results, and make a positive impact on the safety of the food supply.
Optimizing More with Less
While the future seems to be all about change, there’s one constant in food microbiology—every lab is being asked to do more with fewer resources, and that will likely continue. This means more testing, more types of testing, and faster turnaround.
Even with high-tech machines to assist the laboratory technicians, a lab can only do a limited number of things to meet those increased demands. Automation is one piece of the puzzle (or one part of the machine); workflow optimization is the other.
In most laboratories, the majority of laboratory personnel time is not spent on “core value” activities. Instead, labs must deal with backlog requests, gather missing information, endure wait time to complete the next “core value” step because of unavailable staffing or equipment, expend unnecessary motion (e.g., walking to the suboptimal location for the next task), review quality assurance, call or log information, and correct quality issues (e.g., identifying, handling and fixing defects in the process).
That doesn’t mean that addressing quality issues is time wasted. Instead, the goal is to increase the ratio of “core value” to “non-core value” time, thereby optimizing the workflow.
Food labs already have access to some workflow optimization tools. These include data management options like laboratory information management systems, which offer optimized workflow via automatic transfer of work lists, centralized access to results, and automatic export of results to customers, among other benefits. Ultimately, these types of systems can help increase both productivity and traceability. In the lab of the future, all equipment should be easily integrated into the LIMS.
Some companies also offer services to help create more efficient labs. For example, bioMérieux is building the foundation for the lab of the future by offering new capabilities to its customers, including workflow optimization assessment and lean lab design. These process and flow improvement methodologies involve observing a lab in its current state, then providing a roadmap outlining how the lab can improve processes and workflow (matching workload/capacity) to reduce waste and improve efficiency. The workflow assessment of the food microbiology lab streamlines and optimizes operations, allowing the lab to manage higher and more complex test loads amid shrinking budgets and an increasingly stringent regulatory environment.
While many labs are getting a headstart on workflow optimization, more can and will need to be done. In the lab of the future, experts anticipate the availability of even more tools, techniques, and technology, along with more demands on the lab.
These improved testing systems will likely require less time, space, and human handling, optimizing workflow by their very nature and design. At the same time, many anticipate a food lab that will allow food producers, processors, and manufacturers to screen incoming raw materials and in-process parameters with near real-time microbiology information.
The ability to coordinate these testing activities and communicate results in the most optimized fashion will be all the more important given that the lab of the future will need to connect with vendors and suppliers on a global basis, not just via today’s centralized lab.
While many labs are getting a headstart on workflow optimization, more can and will need to be done. In the lab of the future, experts anticipate the availability of even more toosl, techniques, and technology, along with more demands on the lab.
Flexibility for Future Threats
While the rise of the machines may be a source of fear for some, evolving threats to the food supply will be another challenge the labs of the future likely will face.
As the government works to try to meet its mandate of making sure our food is safe, labs may need to conduct additional testing as more pathogens and/or adulterants, such as the six E. coli serotypes that the USDA recently labeled as adulterants, are added to the list.
In addition, the chance that new pathogens may emerge or mutate into a form not yet seen or tested exists. Genetic shifts may occur, making organisms more virulent or unknown, as seen in antibiotic resistance development.
And then there is the potential for the intentional contamination of the food supply through terroristic activity. Food companies have already begun to increase their attention to detail regarding the security of the foods they produce.
For these reasons, the lab of the future should not be a static entity, but one with flexibility built in. Future labs will need to have the ability to adapt based on needs, whether those needs involve addressing increased testing requirements, bacterial mutation, or even intentional contamination. Labs will need to adapt quickly to address these threats.
Clearly, the microbiology lab and the instruments that keep it running are critical to ensuring a safe, nutritious, and available food supply. Through automation, workflow optimization, and flexibility, the food lab of the future will be well prepared to continue to make this possible, as well as address any issues that may arise.
J. Stan Bailey is director of scientific affairs for bioMérieux Industry. Prior to joining bioMérieux, he worked as a research scientist for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service from 1973-2007 and, in 2002, was named Outstanding Senior Research Scientist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.