4 Questions to Prof. Kerstin Thurow

1. From your point of view, where is automation in the laboratory currently at and where could it still go? For example, are there currently limits to laboratory automation or is it theoretically possible to implement a fully autonomous laboratory in which humans only have to be active in monitoring/directing?


Technologically, many processes can now run fully automatically or even fully autonomously in the laboratory. However, this raises the question of how autonomous does it have to be? How complex are the processes to be automated? 'The fully autonomous laboratory' will not exist - solutions will always be optimized for specific processes.

Limits currently exist primarily with regard to the control of highly complex systems. Further developments are required here to enable industry standards with regard to reliable error detection, dynamic schedulers and intelligent redundancy solutions and to guarantee reliable 24/7 operation.


2. What role does robotics play for the laboratory currently and in the coming years?


Robotics is of particular importance in laboratory automation. In addition to classic Cartesian liquid handling robots, different robot arms are used in particular when highly complex systems consisting of several devices have to be connected to each other. Their use was limited for a long time due to the high costs. With the development of lightweight robots, however, there is also a cost-effective way of automating individual process steps, which will lead to highly distributed automation structures in the future. Questions regarding the transport of samples, reagents and labware between the sub-stations must then be clarified here. Mobile robots will play an important role here in the future. First approaches exist; In addition to technological restrictions, general use is currently limited primarily by the associated high costs.


3What do you think is an important example of how progress in automation has fundamentally changed laboratory work?


With all the developments of the past year, this question is not that easy to answer. Among other things, the development of lightweight robots was very important, which, due to their design and numerous safety features, do not require any recesses or other safety measures and thus enable significantly better cooperation between humans and robots. This also makes automation possible in areas that were unthinkable just a few years ago.

If you look into the future here, I see mobile robotics in particular as an aspect that will fundamentally change laboratory work. This will enable a further increase in the degree of automation, particularly in highly complex distributed systems. 


4. To what extent are the topics of automation, digitization and miniaturization related and how can more sustainable work in the laboratory be achieved with the developments in this area?


The topics of automation and digitization are intrinsically closely linked. It should be noted here that digitization alone is not sufficient. Automation has a strong hardware component, especially in the laboratory area. Automation of laboratory processes is not possible without suitable devices and systems that handle samples and labware. In today's discussion, this is often forgotten or taken for granted.

Miniaturization is another important point. It enables automation in many places that is otherwise not possible or only possible with low throughput and high costs. In addition, the sustainability aspect should not be neglected here. Our own automation of a wide variety of applications clearly shows an enormous potential for savings in consumables, solvents,  reagents and samples. Automation can thus make a significant contribution to greater sustainability in the laboratory.