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Manual vs automated counting, is there a great devide?

Before deciding between automated or manual counting, start with defining what cells are to be counted. Only when it is clear what you want to count and in what quantity, you can properly evaluate setups which are available to you.

Since the beginning of operations in 2012, we noticed a trend among our partners and customers, that many of them still prefer to count manually. This can be cost effective, but is time consuming, they choose to stick with it as they believe that there are no good alternatives.

Many of them feel that the current and previous generations of automated cell counters are inaccurate, slow and expensive to operate (the mounting cost of disposables to name just one).

But is this view regarding manual and automated counting indeed correct. Or is there something that has been overlooked?

Should you switch between manual and automated counting?

“Sure you can come over to our lab with your automated cell counter, but I warn you, I am a manual counting cheerleader!”

This is a line from a conversation with one of our clients. It seems that there are some that have clear prejudice regarding automated cell counter or manual counting. To investigate this properly there is one question you must answer yourself. What do you want to count? Because the answer to this will influence what kind of counting is best situated for you.

Perhaps you want to measure only one cell type multiple times per day or investigate a wide array of cells and bacteria. When making your decision between manual and automated setups, whatever you want to count, the following four aspects need to be considered.

Accuracy

For both manual and automated setups, the results obtained must be accurate. With manual counting its strengths are in its versatility, accurate classification and early problem detection. Because the operator directly observes the cells, any errors can quickly be assessed.

But the operator is also its disadvantage, as its results are subjective and inter-operator variation can be high. The counting protocol from one person may differ greatly from another even if they count the same grid from the same hemocytometer.

Automated counting has the advantage that it has a lower error rate per sample and does not suffer from the subjectivity inherent to manual cell counting. Also, automation benefits from a high reproducibility compared to manual counting. However, since there is no human element classifying cells, the possibility of misclassification is higher. This can allow for automated systems to be precise, but have a low level of trueness, thus underestimating the actual concentration.

Versatility

Manual counting is easily adaptable to many situations, making it highly versatile. It is, at the same time also, limited by its human operator. These operator limitations are time needed to perform a count and proper counting through experience.

Automated cell counting allows for a higher throughput of samples thus, more counts can be performed. This results in higher productivity and less misclassification between samples, but limits its versatility available with a specific system.

Reporting

For manual counting, reporting has not changed since the first hemocytometer was used in the 19th century. The operator simply writes results in their lab journal.

On the automated side, a lot has changed, allowing for more in-depth and faster reporting of the cell counts. With current setups, there are more detailed analysis reports available, including graphical display of the cells counted. Furthermore with cloud data storage, the operator can reanalyze data later. This may provide new results otherwise overlooked.

Costs

Manual counting has the lowest initial purchase and operating cost, due to its re-usability. Especially at small number of counts it is the best choice regarding budget.

Nevertheless, that does not include the cost of the time the operator needs to perform the count and the time required to gain experience in manual counting. Accordingly, cost can greatly increase in total when the amount of counts increases.

For automated counting, the initial purchase cost can be a large hurdle to overcome as they are often more expensive by a factor of 1,000x. Their advantage is that they greatly decrease processing time per sample. An additional cost is the necessity of consumables. These consumables can surpass the initial purchase cost greatly when the device is used for a large amount of cell counts. With increasing numbers of counts, automated systems may be lower in costs than manual counting due to its reduction of operator costs.

CONCLUSION

Before deciding between automated or manual counting, start with defining what cells are to be counted. Only when it is clear what you want to count and in what quantity, you can properly evaluate setups which are available to you. Focus on details of both manual and automated systems regarding their costs, accuracy, versatility and reporting and how these are related to your requirements.

Once you can relate this information to your situation, you will see which system suits your needs. Allowing you to make the best decision, to continue counting manually or perhaps switch to automated counting.

A final tip

When trying a new setup, always try to arrange a trial. With a trial you can see if the product fits your needs.

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