July 6, 2015 by Kevin Keras
Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes. However, what separates laboratory automation from industrial assembly or manufacturing applications is its reliance on the assumption that everything will behave as taught. Well, as life teaches us...things change. Industrial automation has practiced total process control for decades. TPC aims to identify all variables in a process and predict the likelihood of failures. Only when you can identify and estimate the risks points in a process, can you predict (or control) the outcome.
Let's look at a common process involving a liquid handling robot performing a basic 96-well mtp plate replication. We'll keep it simple to illustrate the concept of TPC. Assume there is a nine position deck (3 x3) and the source plate (mother) is in location A1 (rear left) , the destination plate (daughter) is in A3 (rear right) and a box of disposable pipette tips is located in C1 (front left). Pretty simple method for the robot; Get tips from C1, aspirate 100ul from A1, dispense 100ul into A3 then eject tips back into A3. What could go wrong? A lot. First of all, we will assume that every location has been properly taught. Somehow, the right consumables have to be placed on the corresponding deck locators. This could be done manually by an operator or automatically by the liquid handling robot gripper or an external robot arm. Next, the robot the has to properly attach the tips and reliably aspirate/dispense the liquids, then eject the tips back into the tip box.
How do we know if the operator put the plates and tips in the right locations? How do we know that the plates or tips are oriented correctly or that they are seated flush in the locators? We don't..and neither do most liquid handlers. Some clever programmers have gone so far as to use visual prompts (pictures of how the deck should look) to assist operators in populating the deck prior to running assays. But, who is to say that the operator really gets it right? Additionally, what happens if a tip gets hung up on a mandrel? Crashes and spoiled assays can be the end result of 'things going wrong.' That is why process control is important. Now, what could we do to ensure proper consumable placement and operation/
Vision sensors are an ideal tool for quality control. Available from numerous vendors (Cognex, Keyence, Omron_ and others), vision sensors are compact and low cost devicess that allow users to capture a known good image which can then be used as a template to test for matches. They include built in cameras, illumination and I/O along with software for inspecting and training. Unlike Vision Systems, which are often highly programmable frame grabbers, sensors are go/no-go devices that provide fast 'bad/good' decision making.
A sensor could be attached to a liquid handling robot arm and driven over consumables prior to a run to see if the plate or tips match a template. Most sensors have the ability to save multiple images and can communicate via simple digital I/O. A robot developer can then use the robots I/O to initiate inspections that either verify and initiate a method or flag an operator with an error message. In my prior blog we talked about static issues and how they can impact disposable pipette tips. Imagine now, using vision sensor (looking horizontally) to inspect the robot mandrel for the presence of a hanging tip.
I am sure there are other possible uses for vision sensors in your lab operations...it wouldn't require a 'visionary' to come up with a few. Let us all know if you have some ideas?
June 15, 2015 by Kevin Keras
Most people are taught to think of electricity via the analogy of running water. The volume of water moved from point A to point B is analogous to voltage while the rate which the water flows is like electrical current. Multiply the two together and you have power(P=IxE).
Static electricity is the opposite of current electricity, in that it does not move. It just builds up between two non-conducting materials (like plastic and rubber) and sits there, waiting to discharge (Google Triboelectric Effect). If you have ever touched something and got a brief shock, you have likely experienced static build up and provided the path to ground that discharged that potential energy charge. If you ever touched something and got a prolonged and painful shock, you have probably been electrocuted and may be reading this from the Great Beyond.
Static build-up occurs in environments that are dry. Water molecules help diminish charge build up. Insofar as laboratories are concerned, static is generally not an issue due to controlled temperatures and humidity...but they are not immune. This can be routinely found to be an issue with ill-behaved liquid handlers. Disposable plastic pipette tips have been known to 'hang up' or not eject from their mandrels when humidity levels drop. I have seen tips appear to dance in mid-air, only held to the mandrel by static charges. This is dramatically visible with lower volume (384) tips as their mass is less to begin with and is exacerbated by the use of rubber o-rings on the dispense head mandrels. Rubber, plastic and lack of humidity are the perfect recipe for static cling.
So what can be done? Well, the simple solution is to add humidity to lab. If the lab's HVAC system is not capable of effecting changes, you could place a humidifier near your liquid handler. Just be careful as it is a fine line between adding moisture to the air and saturating your robot. Get a can of Static Guard from your local grocery store. These sprays add moisture (water and alcohol, with minerals and salts removed) and are very effective (albeit temporarily) when sprayed directly on rubber o-rings. Another longer lasting and more pragmatic solution would be to place an ionizing fan right on the liquid handler deck, near your tips racks. These devices add electrical charges to the air (anions, or negative ions) and the fan blows it across your tips which can change the electron imbalance just enough to offset clinging tip issues.
Don't let your labs environment make you retreat from automated assays....wait for it....here it comes...."CHARGE." That just happened. BAM.
Next Blog - Vision Sensors (they can be used for lots of stuff, including pipette tip issues...)
May 21, 2015 by Kevin Keras
Hey, our colleagues over at Biodirect are offering an unbelievable deal on Tecan EVO 150 liquid handling robots.
- EVO2 150
- LiHA 8
- Win7 PC,
- EVOware 2.5 & Hard Dongle
All for $49,995! They are even including 20% discounts on specific brands of sealers, thermal cyclers and dispensers...
If you have an older Genesis and can't afford to buy a new unit, you should take a look at this deal. Pretty sweet.
Heck, it might be time to toss out that old Sciclone or MultiProbe II....
May 11, 2015 by Kevin Keras
It takes two to tango, so the old saying goes. Well, that too can be said of liquid handling robots (...no, really, I mean it. I am an Arthur Murray dropout. Work with me on this one...)
A large majority of liquid handling robots require the use of disposable pipette tips. As mentioned in part one of this post, many OEM manufacturers have a vested interest in providing their own tips. That can be expensive, and with good reason. Most liquid handling robot manufacturers only make tips for their own robots. On the other hand, there are a number of third party vendors who provided comparable tips at significantly reduced prices. How is that possible? Simple, they provide tips for many, if not all, brands, makes and models of liquid handling robots. As such, the sheer scale of their operational commitments to tip manufacturing allows them to create and distribute tips for less.
In January of this year, Biodirect (parent company of The LabSquad) announced a new partnership with Biotix (San Diego, CA). Before I highlight the benefits of this partnership, let me provide a brief overview:
Biotix - manufactures very high quality, OEM comparable automation and manual pipette tips. If you are a VWR customer, you can order them online. They currently offer tips for Agilent/Velocity11, Beckman Coulter, Caliper/Perkin Elmer, Tecan and other robots.
Biodirect - for over 14yrs has been the industry leader in providing high quality refurbished lab instruments, particularly liquid handling robots. Refurbished robots from Biodirect can be had for 50-70% the cost of a new robot and come with 6-12 month warranties.
The LabSquad - provides preventative and corrective maintenance services on liquid handling robots and all the peripheral instruments commonly found in those labs (washers, sealers, pcr, readers...etc.). The LabSquad emphasizes the use of PM's as alternatives to expensive OEM service contracts.
Under this new partnership, Biotix will provide consumables to Biodirect who will perform all quality testing of refurbished liquid handlers (including Artel dye testing) using Biotix tips and other consumables. Additionally, every newly refurbished unit will ship with a starter kit of Biotix consumables at no charge to customers. The LabSquad performs gravimetric and/or Artel QC tests as a standard part of field based PM's and will now do so utilizing Biotix tips and consumables. LabSquad engineers will also work with customers who need assistance in transitioning from their current tips into Biotix tips.
The combined efforts of these three groups presents enormous value to our customers who will save significant time and money. Now, for the first time users can purchase a wide variety of liquid handling robots of any brand/model with warranties and recieve coordinated service and consumables support.
Whereas, OEM manufacturers can only provide such products and services for their own brand, The Biodirect/LabSquad/Biotix alliance takes on the appearance of an 'uber' solutions provide. Too bad the Uber name is already taken...
April 27, 2015 by Kevin Keras
Back in May of 2013, we talked about the use of third party tips on liquid handling robots. Well, we got a lot of emails on that one as it seems a lot of people are looking for alternative tip providers, for a number of reasons...but mostly cost savings.
We heard a lot of stories regarding OEM's who threatened to void instrument warranties or even refuse to service instruments that use third party tips. Is that legal? Probably not but, it certainly is unwise and I would imagine that is not a company policy so much as it is a regional sales rep or service engineer who does not want to lose a lucrative revenue stream.
Having worked on the supplier side (at Caliper Life Sciences, now part of Perkin Elmer), I can tell you that most OEM's want end users to buy their tips...and only their tips. Why is that? Well, the biggest reason is that they have invested heavily in the creation of precision injection molds and the logistics required to stock and ship tips. This is not inconsequential and often explains why OEM tips tend to cost more than third party tips. Even when the mold costs have been amortized, stocking and distributing tips is a costly endeavor, as is ongoing quality monitoring.
So, you might be asking, how could a third party tip cause an instrument to fail? The only conceivable scenarios I can think of are:
a) head crashes due to physical differences or
b) 0-rings on mandrels that might wear or deform due to physical differences (polymers or dimensions).
Other than that, it's really a red-herring argument. Our sister division, AssayGuru has performed performance analysis on a number of third party tips for various manufacturers and compared both pipetting accuracy and mechanical reliability. These tests were conducted on various brands of liquid handling robots using both third party and OEM tips. In most cases, there have been no issues and the third party manufacturers we have worked with were eager to find and correct any flaws, prior to launching their tip products.
In my next post, I will detail one such manufacturer who has impressed us so much that we have actually created a new partnership...stay tuned.
March 18, 2015 by Kevin Keras
"It slices, it dices, it will even make Julian Fries (whatever they are)." How many times have you heard a pitch that just sounded too good to be true, and then upon looking into the details...your intution was right? It's a common story of over-promise/under-deliver. It turns most people off, but I guess that it works enough that the hucksters keep trying it. Still, if you have something of value and can get more people to take a look by telling it like it is, the rewards would be much greater. You would think purveyors of such approaches would learn, but it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks.
Over the last 15 years of working with researchars I have heard countless tales of people who got burned by someone whose pitch was great but whose product...not so much. This is especially true of refurbished lab equipment. I have worked in several other industries such as electronic assembly and industrial automation, mostly invoving customized robotic solutiions. After a market matures, resellers of "previously used" equipment start appearing in numbers. It's just the way it is and we certainly have our share in the life sciences. Some good, some...not so good. There are lots of reasons but at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is customer satisfaction. Someone who buys a used lab instrument is almost always looking for two things: a) cost savings and b) reliability. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that over-selling and under-delivering to these folks is not going to work.
So, what separates the good resellers from the bad? In my experience, it comes down to honesty. Does the reseller really understand what they have and are they sufficiently experienced or resoured to provide products that will result in a happy customer? You can usuially determine this by the warranty they provide. Resellers that have confidence in the quality of what they are offering provide longer warranties. It's a simple yardstick but a good one. If you buy from auction sites, be aware that what you see in photos may not be what you get. Same thing for eBay or sites that provide 30 day money back guarantees. That last one should set off road flares. Essentially, these folks are saying "hey, you go ahead and try it out because we have no idea whether the thing works or not. If it fails, then send it back and thanks for the free triage."
For the "value shoppers" out there (you know who you are), try to remember that price isn't everything. While saving money may endear you to the Finance Deparment, trying to get your money back for an "AS IS" purchase will not get you invited to the Legal Department's holiday party (lawyers like to party in their 'briefs'). Finally, ask about post-sales support. This is really important for larger instruments (like liquid handling robots) that are costly to transport. The best criteria for a used lab instrument will rarely, if ever, be the least expensive one...
Side Note - We work on a variety of instruments from many resellers and have first hand experience on the good and the...not so good. The LabSquad's parent company, Biodirect Inc has been a leading provider of refurbished lab instumernt for nearly 15 years.
March 2, 2015 by Kevin Keras
You probably heard that acclaimed actor Leonard Nimoy passed away last week. While it would be wholly unfair to ignore the breadth of his many professional achievements, it is hard not to focus on the iconic role of Star Trek's Mr. Spock.
Growing up in the 60's you would be hard pressed to find a kid who was not riveted to the TV every Friday night (season 1 was Thursday nights) on NBC. We orginal Trekkers knew the show inside and out and could get visibly agitated when a grown-up would confuse 'Mr. Spock" with 'Dr. Spock.' Who knows, maybe that confusion is why so many baby boomers are such a mess now...
Thinking back on the character of Mr. Spock (Chief Science Office), it got me thinking about how engineers, particularly field service engineers, interact with scientists in our industry. Scientists and engineers have vary different mindsets and sometimes have a little difficulty in communicating. Not to get overly analytical but, scientists by nature are experimenters. They solve problems by hypothesizing, experimenting and observing. Engineers on the other hand, generally take a systems approach to problem solving, using 'knowns' and working their way backward to determine faults. Good engineers, by virtue of their training take a 'first do no harm' approach to resolving problems and therefore ask lots of questions before they start taking things apart. Two different approaches that can be hard to reconcile. Channeling Dr. McCoy "Damnit Jim, I'm a doctor not an... (insert engineer or scientist here).
October 15, 2014 by Kevin Keras
"You're a LEAN...MEAN...FIGHTING...MACHINE!" -Bill Murray, Stripes 1981
Classic movie line, and with a bit of manipulation, an apt description for how many labs go about supporting their instrumentation. Lean, is a concept well known to many manufacturering operations and it's core roots are that of continuous improvement, which is of course finding great interest within research labs.
Lean Maintenance is a proactive approach that favors planned maintenance (PM's) instead of the tradiional annual service contract approach. Annual service contracts are a luxury that most labs (large and smal) can no longer afford. Large labs especially, are moving toward the PM approach for severl key reasons;
It's proactive - good PM's can find problems before they become critical, resulting in greater uptime.
It's pragmatic - mananging multiple service contracts can be very time consuming.
It's cost effective - service contracts costs are a budget killer.
A good PM procedure (one that mirrors the OEM's) requires smaller upfront investments that pale in comparison to annual service contracts costs, which are typically 10-15% of purchase price...year after year. PM's often provide so much cost savings that users are only contacting manufacturers when something breaks.
Finally, in an upcoming post I will talk about some specific strategies for Lean Maintenance. For now, just think twice before you automatically sign up of an expensive service contract...there are alternatives.
September 29, 2014 by Kevin Keras
The good people at LabManager.com have been busy lately, with two great articles on microplate readers.
The first, is a brief overview of considerations for cell-based assays (click here).
There is also a more comprehensive report "2014-15 Product Resource Guide: Microplate Handlers and Readers" (click here). Great info including new product releases and a links to most of the key providers.
Like most new instruments, many of these readers come with 12 month standard warranties (parts & labor). Of course, when your new reader comes off warranty (or your old reader)...you know who to contact for PM and validation services!
July 7, 2014 by Kevin Keras
Okay, so this picture has nothing to do with plate handlers but it kinda freaked me out so, I figured if I'm not going to be able to sleep tonite I might as well take others down with me....
Just saw a recent survey from LabManager.com about micrplate handlers (CLICK HERE).
They suggest 6 questions that potential buyers should ask, but I found the list to be a bit...'thin' and was a little disappointed. A couple of additional questtions might include;
1) Storage - does the robot support both stacks and random access storage? Very useful when working with incubations and other time sensitive events. Are the racks removeable? Very handy for offline load and unload.
2) Gripper - Is the gripper electrically actuated or pneumatically actuated? Electric (servo) grippers offer the ability to fine tune plate gets or puts. Pneumatics will obviously require in-house air or a portable compressor. Also, if you are handling multiple containers or lids, the pneumatic gripper will treat them all alike...not so for the electric.
3) Plate Sensing -Does the gripper include a plate presence sensor? If, so is it force-based or optical? Some optical sensors have problems with clear plastics.
4) Safety - Does the plate handler have an E-Stop circuit? Not all do and even though they can be wimpy compared to industrial robots, there's nothing a quite like an OSHA audit when an unsuspecting operator gets wacked upside the head...
5) Software - Does the plate handler support manual arm movement for teaching or do I have to jog to all locations? Turning off servo motors but leaving the encoders powered up makes it very simple to grab the arm and place it in approximate locations, whereupon you can repower and fine tune. Jogging only takes a lot more time. Also, does the plate handler support Windows 7 or greater? IT departments everywhere are cracking down on pre Win7 software...
Just a few of my thoughts, perhaps you have some to add...