Lab Automation: Pharma Comes to the Rescue

Laboratory automation equipment can increase laboratory efficiency, especially in areas where processes depend on repetition and precision. Lab automation is also a way to increase productivity, throughput and, perhaps, most importantly, lower the cost per sample analyzed. In 2007, growth for the overall lab automation market was disappointing. Historically, the automation market grows between 7% and 10%. However, the market was particularly soft in 2007 as lab automation grew only 4.9% over 2006, totaling $3.0 billion. Lab automation sales are very strong in the life science sector, especially the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. The laboratory automation market consists of five technology categories: liquid handling, microplate readers, robotics, dissolution testing and management informatics, which consists of laboratory information management systems (LIMS), scientific data management systems (SDMS) and electronic laboratory notebooks (ELN). Overall, these markets are expected to perform better in 2008 than 2007, growing 6.1% driven by continued expansion of the life science market. Liquid handling, which includes manual and handheld pipettes as well as automated workstations, accounted for 41.3% of the lab automation market in 2007. Manual pipettes, pipette tips and microplates are commodities and offer modest growth prospects. Pipettes that feature ergonomic designs and advanced features are fueling growth. The leading pipette companies are Eppendorf AG and Mettler-Toledo. Growth for automated liquid handling (ALH) was dismal in 2007, but should increase in 2008, particularly in the second half of the year. ALH replacement systems and new, ultralow-volume systems are driving growth, particularly for drug discovery applications. Smaller, application-specific systems have grown the market and provided automation to researchers with lower throughput and budget demands. While 96-well plates are the standard microplate format, end-users are migrating to 384- and 1536-well formats. Microplate readers accounted for nearly 26% of the market in 2007 and sales are forecasted to grow 5.5% this year. Microplate readers can be used as standalone devices or can be integrated into a robotic system. This market is being driven by advanced system configurations with multimode detection capabilities. In addition, applications involving fluorescence detection technologies such as fluorescence polarization and time-resolved fluorescence have gained in popularity. PerkinElmer and Molecular Devices (now part of MDS) lead the market. In 2008, growth will be led by sales of reagents as well as consumables and kits, particularly for cell-based assays. Robotics accounted for about 10% of the total lab automation market in 2007. North America and Europe accounted for most of the market, led by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, but these sectors were more cautious in their investments for robotics. Nevertheless, mainstream industries continue to adopt innovative platforms when necessary. Overall, sales of robotics are expected to grow 3.9% this year, led by Tecan and Symyx Technologies. In 2007, dissolution testing made up about 4% of lab automation demand; sales should increase 11.5% this year, as the pharmaceutical industry expands operations in India and China. Leading vendors include Varian and Sotax. With the amount of automation and data being generated as a result of scientific workflows, data management software is vital to laboratories. Management informatics, which accounted for 18.7% of the lab automation market in 2007, should grow solidly this year. Many end-users are growing out of their current LIMS as laboratory capabilities have become increasingly complex due to new instrumentation and departmental restructuring. ELNs are becoming more prominent, particularly as end-users convert from in house systems to commercial ones. Leading LIMS companies include Thermo Fisher and LabWare.

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