Retrospective on Lab Automation in Japan

DO YOU REMEMBER BACK TO THE FIRST TIME YOU HEARD NEWS that national lab companies like MetPath, Inc. and SmithKline Beecham Clinical Laboratories (SBCL) were going to install full automation into their laboratories? It was back in 1991-1993 when this talk began filtering across the laboratory industry. This was the start of TLA (total laboratory automation) as a competitive threat. It was believed that commercial laboratories which didn’t adopt TLA would be at a severe competitive disadvantage to those lab companies which did.

Fast forward to 2006. Surprisingly, the nation’s largest labs have been slow to utilize TLA. In fact, two of the three TLA systems installed at MetPath and SBCL labs by 1996 were turned off and no new ones installed in their place. During the past decade, it was health system and hospital labs which implemented full TLA solutions, although their numbers are limited.

Let’s take another step down memory lane. Do your remember conversations you had with vendors and proponents of TLA during the years between 1993 and, say 2000? Do you recall the “role model” for TLA that was held up as the validation of TLA? Give yourself an “A” for total recall if your answer was laboratories in Japan. The drumbeat of diagnostic firms and TLA advocates was consistent and continual: “TLA is a success in Japan! Japanese labs handle huge volumes of specimens with few employees. This works extremely well in Japan and laboratories in the United States will equally benefit when they buy TLA technology and put it to work in their laboratories.”

My reason for dredging up these memories is because of a fascinating thing that happened at the Fifth International Conference on Laboratory Automation and Robotics, conducted in Seoul, Korea just three weeks ago. THE DARK REPORT was there to present and to participate in the activities. Editor Robert Michel shares his experiences, insights, and observations in this special issue. What caught my attention is his report on the comments of Jutaro Tadano, M.D., Ph.D., who is deeply respected in Japan for his seminal work in specific aspects of laboratory automation.

In his prepared remarks, Dr. Tadano looked back on 25 years of process innovation in Japanese laboratories. His conclusion—and his recommendation—offer unique wisdom to pathologists and lab directors. I won’t spoil the surprise. You can read it for yourself on pages 15-17. 


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