Improving contract lab efficiency and productivity through automation
As demand for outsourced microbiological testing to assure the food value chain increases, contract laboratories look to expert service providers delivering carefully considered integration of strategic automation technologies to relieve this operational burden
In a recent survey of food processors in the US, Canada, and around the world, more than 90% indicated that they are expecting to maintain or increase their microbiological testing over the next 12 months, with a significant portion of tests outsourced to contract labs.  While microbiology contract labs are already an integral part of the food value chain, the increase in outsourcing will continue to elevate them within food processors' safety and quality programs. The resulting increase in volume will also place more strain on lab operations.
Contract labs are well seasoned at managing high volumes and delivering fast, accurate results to customers, but still face difficult challenges to operating at maximum throughput. Training and retaining lab technician staff to run manual processes is a key barrier, particularly because many of these processes can be time-consuming. As volumes continue to grow, introducing automation to a lab can be an effective strategy to increase efficiency and productivity. Introducing automation in a strategic way can relieve burden from technicians, while also enabling a lab to continue to deliver fast, accurate results to customers.
3M Food Safety offers strategic automation solutions that support its breadth of food safety testing products. Its innovative technologies and technical expertise can support contract labs as they work to improve their lab efficiency while winning share in a growing market.
Barriers to efficiency and productivity in the lab
Manual processes can be significantly time consuming. Media preparation, colony enumeration, result collection and transcription can all take considerable time.  Beyond time, employee training and turnover can impact the bottom line. Turnover within the industry can be a challenge for contract labs, requiring consistent training of new employees on different processes. Human error is always possible, but the risk increases when coupled with employee turnover.Furthermore, many labs use traditional agar plates, a time and resource intensive approach to making media and running the relevant tests. Technicians also need to manually count colonies whether using traditional agar or dry film, which is very labour intensive. Technicians can sometimes encounter indicator tests that are difficult to interpret, making it challenging to quickly count colonies. Plate enumeration can take up technicians’ valuable time — time that could be better applied to more value-added tasks. In addition, collecting and analysing test results can be a considerable challenge as some labs may lack the software infrastructure to turn data into actionable insights.
Introducing the right automation solution to the lab will improve productivity and reduce technician burden, however, there are a few critical questions to ask before introducing automation. Answering the questions outlined in ‘Evaluating automation integration’ may take a bit of time to determine but identifying where automation can fit in can pay off tremendously.
Evaluating automation integration
When evaluating automation integration within a lab, a few important questions to ask include:
- What are the needs of my customers?
- What capabilities currently exist within the lab to meet these needs?
- What is the current sample volume?
- How much time is being spent on each step?
- Where is the lab not performing efficiently?
- What areas are particularly prone to analyst error?
- Where could automation fit within the lab?
- Can the automation solution interact with my Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS)?
- What is the ROI/cost on investment in automation?
Improving efficiency and productivity with the right technology
Traditional culture methods can be time consuming, labour intensive, require space for media preparation and storage and even secondary confirmation steps that can take a few days. A study using third-party food testing laboratories found significant time savings when using an automated technology — the 3M™ Petrifilm™ Plate Reader Advanced.  This system is an automated solution that can improve speeds when enumerating 3M™ Petrifilm™ Plates, helping to improve process efficiencies for lab technicians.
The study compared the time required for technicians to manually count Aerobic Count Plates and Rapid Aerobic Count Plates that contained low, medium, and high levels of colonies with the time required for the system to count the same Petrifilm Plates. The results of the study demonstrate time savings on average of 94% for 3M Petrifilm Aerobic Count Plates and 91% for 3M Petrifilm Rapid Aerobic Count Plates across high inoculum levels. Even plates with low inoculum levels were counted in about half the time when using the
automated reader. 
The new plate reader uses a fixed artificial intelligence system to help lab technicians realise process efficiencies without the loss of accuracy. An internal study  demonstrated that the new advanced plate reader enabled users to achieve an accuracy of at least 90%, similar to that of a trained microbiologist, based on the accuracy criteria outlined in the study. In addition, data trending through 3M’s associated Plate Manager software can help support a lab’s continuous improvement efforts, offering customisable dashboards and report generation to identify potential areas of improvement. Reducing work burden through automation can enable technicians to focus on other value-added tasks.
Efficiency and productivity can be improved within the lab, without loss of accuracy, by carefully considering the right solutions for your lab. While the capabilities of the technology are critical, working with a dedicated partner can help ensure your automation strategy is a success. Contract labs should partner with a solutions-based supplier that provides increased value to their operation to deliver high-quality and timely results to food processing customers.
3M Food Safety is committed to providing contract labs with the technology and resources needed to better serve food processing customers. The 3M Petrifilm Plate Reader Advanced demonstrates how labs can improve efficiency and productivity through automation. 3M's technical experts are available and dedicated to answering questions on usage, and to help with implementation.
Author: Alec Teagarden, Sr. Application Engineer, Microbiologist, 3M Food Safety, 3m.co.uk
Connect with a 3M Food Safety expert, request a productivity analysis, or ask for a demonstration of the 3M Petrifilm Plate Reader Advanced here.
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- Ferguson, B. (April 15, 2021). Testing to Continue to Increase in 2021. Food Safety Magazine. Available at: https://www.food-safety.com/articles/7078-testing-to-continue-to-increase-in-2021
- A productivity analysis of the 3M™ Petrifilm™ Plate Reader Advanced. 3M Food Safety. 2021. Available at: https://multimedia.3m.com/mws/media/1952888O/a-productivity-analysis-of-the-the-3m-petrifilm-plate-reader-advanced-english.pdf
- Manual microbial interpretation vs. automated interpretation using the 3M™ Petrifilm™ Plate Reader Advanced. 3M Food Safety. 2021. Available at: https://multimedia.3m.com/mws/media/1883875O/3m-petrifilm-plate-reader-advanced-accuracy-comparison.pdf