April 5, 2013 by Kevin Keras
A Robot By Any Other Name…
A number of lab systems incorporate robot arms to manipulate consumables (plates, lids, tip boxes, troughs). Robots, insofar as lab automation is concerned, can be broken down into three categories:
Liquid Handling Robots- Ten years ago or more, if someone in the lab was talking about a robot, chances are they meant a liquid handler. Not surprising, since most liquid handler are essentially XYZ robots. However, unlike their more generic cousins which are used in industrial manufacturing applications, these robots have evolved into application-specific workstations. That is to say, they come pre-tooled with everything that is needed to perform plate preparation applications. Even their software is specific to these applications.
Industrial Robots- When moving consumables off the liquid handler deck, to peripheral instruments (readers, washers, storage…etc) a number of lab systems are built around industrial robots from established companies such as Staubli Robotics,Mitsubishi Electric and Epson Robots. These robust and increasingly affordable robots were once the exclusive purview of industrial assembly lines or semiconductor manufacturing. Smaller sizes and lower costs have resulted in widespread adoption by integrators such as Hi-Res Bio, PAA andCaliper Life Sciences (PE). Out of the box, these generic devices are not much more than building blocks – requiring tooling (gripper hands/fingers, storage devices, sensors and a good deal of programming and teaching to make them manipulate lab consumables. However, once tooled up and programmed they are reliable workhorses that require little, if any maintenance.
Plate Mover Robots – Zymark (now Caliper/PE) was one of the first companies to come out with robots dedicated to plate movement. The Twister plate loader was essentially a miniature version of an industrial cylindrical robot – meaning it’s work envelope was cylinder shaped instead of rectangular, like XYZ robots. What made this robot unique is that it came with microplate gripper and fingers, as well as removable plate storage racks. My good friends Rick Bunch and Brian Paras did a masterful job of marketing this product (over 3000 were sold) which became the de-facto standard for loading instruments for nearly a decade. Soon, improved varients emerged such as the Hudson PlateCrane EX, Zymark (PE) Twister II, Thermo CataLyst Express and more recently Peak Robotics(now PAA) KiNEDx/ProNEDx/BiNEDx and Precise Automation PreciseFlex all capable of tending to several instruments (Twister was ideally dedicated to one instrument). Additionally, unlike industrial robots which generally come with sophisticated controllers with multi-tasking operating systems and proprietary programming languages containing huge command sets with an endless syntax permutations, plate mover robots come with build in controllers (no separate box or umbilical cords) and a concise command set that is optimized around moving microplates. Finally, the platemover robots have found dual use as instrument loaders as well as becoming the hub of many integrated systems just like their industrial counterparts noted above.
Last words: Both liquid handling and plate moving robots are well within the means of many labs both in terms of price and functionality as well as ease-of-use. Industrialrobots are best left to those with deeper engineering resources or professional integration firms. Since this is a blog about support…the same holds true in that many labs or third parties are capable of supporting liquid handler and plate movers however, not many (including integrators) are truly capable of services industrial robots. That is a task best left to the robot manufacturer.