Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tips for Designing Effective Workflows in a Microplate Environment

Principles of effective workflow design are universal to any application. Good workflow design and versatile instrumentation are critical components for making good investment decisions in meeting throughput requirements for any laboratory utilizing microplates. The EL406 Combination Washer\Dispenser offers versatile workflow options as it provides multiple microplate washing and dispense options in a single instrument. A few important workflow advantages of the EL406 are decreased downtime, as there is less instrumentation requiring routine maintenance; increased throughput, as there are less robotic steps required during assay processing and all fluidics can be supplied and resupplied at only one station; and, cost effectiveness, as there are few if any consumables required for washing and reagent dispensing to the microplate and the small footprint of this one multi-use instrument saves bench space. Here are some tips we have compiled for designing effective microplate-based workflows that are practical for a variety of applications and throughput needs.
  1. Look for potential bottlenecks in workflow by understanding throughput limitations of the assay(s) (e.g. incubation times or reagent volumes) and the instrumentation (e.g. dead volumes and prime volumes), and then design workflow around these first.
  2. Perform simulated throughput models before ‘going live’ with an assay workflow.
  3. Treat validation of the scheduling as importantly as validating assay performance on an instrument, and take time to test different scenarios.
  4. Start with the potentially highest throughput for a testing facility and map how to get there within the given labor and budgetary resources available. This will help identify areas that are already strong, even if they are manually performed, and areas that are weak and may benefit from automation. Consider automation that can reflect currently successful workflows.
  5. Optimize assay performance on the instrumentation before designing a final workflow. The process of confirming ideal assay performance often results in a specialized combination of tolerances that ultimately impact final workflow. For example, if an assay performs best when a 2 minute soak is integrated into the wash step, it is best to know that before designing the final scheduling scenario.
  6. Plan on some assay waste to validate the model and rework it if necessary.
  7. Build up to a final throughput if possible, adding additional throughput capacity after a single workflow has repeatedly worked effectively.
  8. Have a backup workflow that can be run with minimum instrumentation if major components go down for any reason.
  9. Invest in automation that is adaptable, easy to use, easy to edit, and easy to upgrade either through a single source manufacturer, or a proven group of collaborative components. There are sophisticated scheduling software products available, but they may be challenging to program, or have limited compatibility with a broad range of instrument manufacturers. Support options for these products may make it difficult to change or add throughput scenarios to the original model.
  10. Workflow changes ‘on the fly’ can consume time and material costs that can be alleviated by planning the right combination of compatible instrumentation before purchasing – even if they are not from the same source. Try to plan for what can go wrong by targeting what the strengths and weaknesses of each component in the workflow are and make investment decisions based on the best balance between each piece of automation.
We would be interested in learning any tips you may have.

By, BioTek Instruments

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