In a recent survey of food processors from around the world, more than 90% indicated 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.1 While microbiology contract labs are already an integral part of the food value chain, an increase in outsourcing will continue to elevate their use 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 results to customers, but they still face challenges to operate at maximum throughput. Training and retaining lab technician staff to run manual processes can be a key concern, particularly because many of these processes can be time consuming. As sample volumes continue to grow, introducing automation to a lab can be an effective strategy to increase efficiency and productivity. Introducing automation can relieve burden for technicians, while still enabling a lab to continue to deliver fast results to customers.
3M Food Safety offers 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
Contract labs have plenty of challenges that can impact their efficiency and productivity:
- Manual processes can be significantly time consuming. Media preparation, colony enumeration, result collection and transcription can all take considerable time2 and require trained technicians with a keen attention to detail to properly perform the work.
- Turnover within the laboratory can be a challenge for contract labs because it requires constant training of new employees on these time-consuming manual processes. Human error is always possible, and this risk can increase when coupled with frequent employee turnover.
- Counting of colonies for some indicator methods, whether using traditional agar or dry film can be challenging to interpret, further slowing down the process.
- Collecting and analyzing these results can also be a considerable challenge as some labs may lack the software infrastructure to turn collected data into actionable insights.
Introducing the right automation solution to the lab may improve productivity and reduce technician burden and potential transcription errors. Software that automation may provide can also help labs transform data into useful information.
Considerations for introducing automation
The process of determining automation needs starts with the individual lab. This process should begin by identifying pain points. A lab may not need to replace a whole process with automation but updating even one step can help improve the operation’s efficiency and productivity. When evaluating the integration of automation within a lab, a few important questions to consider include:
- What are the needs of my customers?
- What capabilities currently exist within the lab to meet these needs?
- What is the current volume of samples run in the laboratory?
- How much time is being spent on each step in our processes?
- Are there areas in the process where the lab is not performing efficiently?
- What areas in the process 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 return on investment/cost of investment in automation?
Answering the questions above may take a bit of time but identifying where automation can fit into your processes could pay off tremendously. When considering implementing automation, remain open to the possibility of changing your overall process. Redesigning the operation to make automation integral throughout the process (versus at just one point in the process) may make day-to-day operations more effective overall.
Improving efficiency and productivity with the right technology
Traditional culture methods need space for media preparation and storage and can be time consuming and labor intensive. They may even require secondary confirmation steps that can take a few days. A study of third-party food testing laboratories demonstrated significant time savings when they used the automated technology of the 3M™ Petrifilm™ Plate Reader Advanced.
The 3M Petrifilm Plate Reader Advanced is an automated solution that can improve the speed to enumerate 3M™ Petrifilm™ Plates, helping to improve process efficiencies for the laboratory. The study compared the time required for technicians to manually count 3M™ Petrifilm™ Aerobic Count Plates and 3M™ Petrifilm™ Rapid Aerobic Count Plates that contained low, medium and high levels of colonies with the time required for the 3M Petrifilm Plate Reader Advanced to count the same 3M Petrifilm Plates.
The study demonstrated that reading plates with high inoculation levels using the automated reader resulted in an average time savings of 94% for 3M Petrifilm Aerobic Count Plates and 91% for 3M Petrifilm Rapid Aerobic Count Plates, compared to manual reading of the plates. Even plates with low inoculum levels were counted by the automated reader in about half the time versus the time to do a manual count.2
The 3M Petrifilm Plate Reader Advanced uses a fixed artificial intelligence system to help lab technicians realize process efficiencies without the loss of accuracy. A 3M internal study demonstrated that the 3M Petrifilm Plate Reader Advanced provided an accuracy level of 90% (when colony counts were within the countable range), similar to that of a trained microbiologist, based on the accuracy criteria outlined in the study.3
In addition, data trending through the 3M™ Petrifilm™ Plate Manager software can help support a lab’s continuous improvement efforts, by offering customizable dashboards and report generation to identify potential areas of improvement. Reducing work burden through automation can allow 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 solutions-based suppliers that provide increased value to their operation to deliver high-quality and timely results.
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 solution demonstrates how labs can improve efficiency and productivity through automation. 3M’s technical experts are available to answer questions and to help with implementation.
Contact 3M Food Safety here to connect with an expert, request a productivity analysis, or ask for a demonstration of the 3M Petrifilm Plate Reader Advanced.
- 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
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