As for whether automation could pose
a problem by replacing the role of human
scientists, Henry says this is not the case.
“I need the scientists to look at the data
and make sense of it. I need them there, I
don’t need them doing manual things that
machines can do for us better,” he said.
Enhanced bullet analysis, worker
A new forensic firing range and renewed
use of the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN, at the new
facility also promise enhanced shooting
investigations, with the latter providing an
additional layer of automation to speed up
work at the lab.
While NIBIN was removed from the
previous facility due to lack of use, Henry
says the reinstated system will be much
more efficient than manual processes,
and that working with law enforcement
agencies to quicken the transfer of bullet
evidence between entities will ensure use
of the system is maximized, and focused
on solving the newest and most pertinent
Beyond maximizing efficiency, Henry
says the new facility provides an increased
level of safety and comfort for the scientists who work in the laboratory.
“Some of the safety enhancements for
our personnel have been great. With the issues of some of the drugs that we’re seeing
on the street now, specifically fentanyl—
these substances are really dangerous just
to touch. And if there’s a mistake made
and somebody inhales something like that,
it can be fatal,” he explained.
A new safety feature not available at the
old facility—overhead ventilation devices
on articulating arms that pull fumes and
other potentially dangerous substances into
the ceiling—will better protect lab workers
from such hazards.
Overall, Henry says he is very pleased
with the new facility, and optimistic about
his lab’s ability to serve its agencies and its
community in the future.
“We felt like we’ve got a fantastic enhancement to the forensic service in Utah,
for now and for many years to come,” he
ing. You just kind of made do with what
you had,” Henry explained.
The new 97,000 sq. ft. Module 2 facility
in Taylorsville, Utah, however, is purpose-built, with a wide range of safety and
productivity features that come just in time
to meet an increased demand for the lab’s
Innovating with automation
A key component of the new crime lab
facilities is robotic technology that is able
to automate parts of the analysis process
and therefore cut turnaround time. Putting
this new technology to use would become
key in tackling the rape kit influx that the
crime lab has been experiencing.
The robotics speed up testing by eliminating the need for time-consuming tasks
that would usually be performed by hand.
“I don’t think we could ask for enough
people to accommodate (our workload),
to manually process each one of those samples. When I say manually process I mean
cutting the swabs, adding the chemical,
shaking it up, removing the chemical—it’s
a very work-intensive process,” Henry
The lab is now using two lines of automated technology—Qiagen and Hamilton—to shorten that process.
“We’re using both lines, maximizing it,”
Henry said. “All we’re going to do is cut
the swab and put it in the tube, and let the
robotic do everything for us.”
The automation not only makes for a
faster testing process, but it also frees up
the hands of laboratory staff who then have
time to perform other important tasks.
“That removes the analysts from the
lab and puts them in the data analysis
area where I need them to be, to look at
the data that robotics and all the other
instrumentation is generating for us,”
Implementing this new equipment isn’t
as easy as unpacking it, turning it on and
letting it go to work processing samples.
With new tools and methods come new
challenges, which require some learning
and innovation along the way.
Though primarily a production lab,
typically using already-established methods
to process evidence and get the results
that law enforcement needs to advance
its investigations, Henry says the state
crime lab has begun to seek its own ways
Unified State Laboratories opened in June 2017
with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Photo: Utah.gov.
to “maximize” and “optimize” the use
of both Hamilton and Qiagen QIAcube
machines for best results.
“It was such a dramatic change for us,
to go from the small amount of case work
we had to the huge increase that we’re
experiencing right now, that we had to
do something. And we couldn’t wait for
another lab to generate it, make the best
effort, come out and validate it, and make
it all work out,” Henry explained. “We felt
like this is a good way to go and we just
decided to make the leap ourselves.”
Increased reliance on DNA testing for a
wider variety of crimes—such as shootings
and robberies where touch DNA can be
taken from a gun or face mask—and a new
direct-to-DNA approach for rape kit testing
recently implemented at the lab have been
additional factors in increasing the demand
for testing. With more agencies across the
country, including the approximate 140 law
enforcement agencies served by the Utah
lab, seeking more DNA evidence for inves-
tigations and prosecutions, Henry predicts
automation will become more necessary,
with its speed as well as its ability to take
human error out of the equation.
“With the number of samples and
number of requests that crime labs have
gotten for DNA testing, you’re going
to need some sort of automation, and I
can’t see anything other than some sort of
robotic line to help you out. I see it as a
good thing, and as one more tool for the
forensic scientist to use in the lab,” he said.
“These robotic systems allow us to get the
turnaround times to where we’d like to be.
Personally, I’d like to see a 30-day turn-