- The life sciences and pharmaceutical industries ordered 21% more robotic units YoY in the first half of 2020, according to figures released by the Robotic Industries Association.
- Economic uncertainty and strained supply chains have resulted in a downturn in robotic adoption YoY in other industries. Automotive components, metals and electronics experienced the largest slide.
- As the pandemic decreased some industries' ability to invest in robotics, it may have helped push life sciences labs to invest, according to Robert F. Murphy, a computational biology and biomedical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "I'm not sure how much it accounts for that increase," Murphy said, referring to RIA's figures. "But there has been a move toward doing fully automated labs because of COVID."
The increased need for automation became apparent for Eli Lilly early on in the pandemic when the pharmaceutical company began processing large numbers of COVID-19 tests, Ryan Bernhardt, the discovery automation group leader at Eli Lilly, explained in a Purdue University webinar in October.
At first, Eli Lilly thought it would need to process a few hundred or up to 1,000 patient samples per day. By mid-March, that number had reached 15,000.
"The clinical diagnostic lab at Lilly before this was almost exclusively a manual lab-based operation, and so they were used to maybe being able to accommodate 50 samples in a day," Bernhardt said.
The supply chain for processing and returning COVID-19 test results needed a boost.
"In a matter of four days, we automated this entire process," Bernhardt said, adding that the company invested in 27 robots at five different stages of the testing process.
One type of equipment that played an important role at Eli Lilly was automated liquid handlers, which are one of the more common forms of robotics in the world of life sciences, Murphy said.
The handlers take on the process of pipetting, the technique used in a lab for moving liquid from one place to another. Automation allows samples and reagents to be pipetted more efficiently and accurately.
"It represents an area where you can dramatically reduce certain kind of personnel, especially in pharma, which would normally be sitting at a bench doing those repetitive tasks," Murphy said.
Other common robotics applications in the life sciences world include automated measurement devices and robotic arms. Fully automated, lights-out labs, known as "cloud labs," have become more common, which allow academics or startups to send in a sample for testing and run testing remotely, Murphy said.
"Then the cloud lab keeps inventory for you," he said.
Talent will increasingly be in demand as life science and pharmaceutical companies invest in automation. Last week, Pfizer posted a job for a senior manager for robotics and automation to oversee laboratory automation, according to a job posting on LinkedIn.
Carnegie Mellon University has developed a master's program in automated science. The program's first class is currently in its second year, Murphy said.
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