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  • Writer's pictureMartin Winter

The Off-the-Shelf Fallacy in Lab Automation

Engineers and scientist designing a lab automation solution
Engineers and scientist designing a lab automation solution

Have you ever been surprised or wondered why an off-the-shelf vendor struggled with implementing a solution that required some adaptations to custom materials or protocols? Perhaps you expected a smooth process given their previous successes with similar systems, only to find yourself facing unexpected delays and complications. This scenario highlights what I call "the off-the-shelf fallacy"—the mistaken belief that a previously developed automation solution can seamlessly adapt to new, albeit similar, requirements. This fallacy can lead to significant setbacks and inefficiencies, especially in the case of more complex projects where customer-specific requirements are at stake.

Understanding the Fallacy

The off-the-shelf fallacy hinges on the assumption that a pre-existing solution will easily fit new applications with minimal adjustments. This assumption is flawed for several reasons:

  1. Unique Requirements: No two labs are identical. Variations in container formats, disposables, chemicals, cells, and processes mean that even a solution designed for a seemingly similar application may require significant modifications.

  2. Complex Adaptations: These unique requirements often necessitate extensive engineering efforts to adapt the off-the-shelf solution. The initial allure of a ready-made system quickly fades as customization challenges mount.

  3. False Economy: The perceived cost savings of an off-the-shelf solution can be illusory. The time and resources spent on retrofitting and debugging can exceed the investment needed for a custom-built system designed to meet specific needs from the outset.

The Value of Custom Solutions

Custom lab automation solutions, designed by vendors with deep engineering knowledge, offer several key advantages:

  1. Precision Fit: Custom solutions are designed with the specific requirements of the client in mind. This ensures that all aspects of the lab's operations are seamlessly integrated, leading to higher efficiency and reliability.

  2. Expertise and Insight: Vendors who specialize in customized solutions bring a wealth of experience and understanding of various target applications. Their insights can identify potential issues and opportunities that off-the-shelf providers may overlook.

  3. Flexibility and Scalability: Custom solutions are inherently more flexible. They can be scaled and adapted over time as the lab's needs evolve, ensuring long-term value and adaptability.

Criteria for Successful Custom Solutions

Beyond the basic advantages of custom solutions, there are two additional critical criteria that should be considered when evaluating lab automation vendors:

1. Expertise in Customized Engineering

Expertise in customized engineering is paramount. This includes the ability to conduct a reliable project workflow, delivering solutions on time and within budget while ensuring the fulfillment of customer-specific requirements. Vendors with this expertise bring several benefits:

  • Project Management: Skilled custom solution providers excel in project management, ensuring that all phases of the project—from initial consultation and design to implementation and testing—are executed efficiently.

  • Quality Assurance: These vendors prioritize quality assurance throughout the project lifecycle. They have robust processes in place to ensure that each component and subsystem meets stringent quality standards.

  • Risk Mitigation: Experienced vendors can foresee potential issues and implement strategies to mitigate risks, minimizing disruptions and ensuring a smoother project delivery. They involve application experts right from the start in order to take the specific requirements of each use case into account and validate them with feasibility tests.

2. Freedom of Choice in Instruments and Technologies

One of the significant benefits of custom solutions is the freedom to choose the instruments and technologies that are best suited for the customer's specific needs. This flexibility allows for several advantages:

  • Best-of-Breed Components: Custom solution providers are not tied to a particular set of instruments or technologies. They can select the best-of-breed components that offer the highest performance, compatibility, and reliability for the specific application.

  • Tailored Integration: This freedom ensures that the selected components can be seamlessly integrated into the lab's existing workflows, optimizing performance and minimizing disruptions.

  • Future-Proofing: The ability to choose from a wide range of technologies allows for future-proofing the lab automation system. As new technologies emerge, the custom solution can be adapted or upgraded without being constrained by proprietary systems.

Case in Point: The Impact of Complexity

Consider a lab that needs to automate a process involving proprietary cell cultures. An off-the-shelf solution might initially seem appealing, but the need to accommodate specific container formats, handling protocols, and disposal methods would necessitate extensive customization. Each modification introduces the risk of new points of failure and increases the complexity of the system.

On the other hand, a vendor specializing in custom solutions would approach the project with a deep understanding of the lab's unique requirements. They would design a system that offers the degrees of freedom needed to cover the desired range of cell types without unnecessary compromises. This tailored approach ensures that the solution is robust, reliable, and ready to handle the lab's complexities from day one.


While off-the-shelf solutions in lab automation can appear attractive due to their promise of quick deployment and cost savings, they often fall short when faced with the complexities of larger projects. The off-the-shelf fallacy overlooks the significant engineering efforts required to adapt these solutions to specific requirements, leading to potential inefficiencies and increased costs. 

By choosing a vendor who understands the intricacies of the target application and can tailor a solution to fit specific needs, labs can achieve higher efficiency, better performance, and greater long-term value. In the ever-evolving field of lab automation, it's crucial to look beyond the immediate appeal of off-the-shelf solutions and consider the broader picture—where custom solutions often hold the key to true innovation and success.

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