February 27, 2013

Aye Robot...

scottyThe first lab robot was introduced bzymark logoyZymark Corporation in 1982.   The Zymate robot was used to move labware between various instruments in a ‘pie’ shaped work area, simulating the same procedures followed by theoreticallyhigher priced lab researchers and their assistants.  Fast forward 30yrs and the term lab robot can be further applied to several unique devices;

  • Liquid Handlers – XYZ robots that pipette reagents, some can move plates usinbravog gripper hands.  These devices can pipette in a variety of ways from one single channel, 4-12 channels for row or column work or 96 or 384 channels for whole plate transfers.   Some liquid handlers are used as stand alone devices (islands of automation) and can also be found as the central components on larger automated systems which provide extended walkaway time for users.
  • Plate Movers – Essentially bench top robots that are specifically designed to transport KiNEDxmicroplates.  Unlike more flexible industrial robots, these units are pre-tooled for handling microplates and  come with plate gripper hands and plate storage racks.  Plate Movers generally have a simple software interface for teaching plate locations so users don’t have to deal with the vast command sets that come with more flexible robots.
  • Industrial Robots – While designed for a host of applications from electrical/mechanical manufacturing to painting, weldinstaublig and sorting, a number of industrial strength robots can be found at the heart of fully integrated systems.  Generally chosen for their extended reach, these highly sophisticated devices use a small subset of their potential for moving plate between storage devices and instruments at slower speeds than might be found in other applications.

All of these devices are approaching commodity status is the life science markets (drug discovery, genomics, proteomics…etc) which means that their prices are dropping and their ease-of-use is increasing, resulting in faster adoption and deployment.   And while it may be obvious to most,  several of the main reasons for automating lab applications remain constants over time;

  • Increased Throughput – process more samples without human intervention.  This makes lab workers more productive by freeing up time to work on other critical tasks.
  • Repeatability – many lab techs can pipette just as good as any liquid handler, however pipetting is time consuming and its repetitive nature can make it an error-prone operation.   Liquid handling robots largely eliminate human variability and human error, resulting in more reliable data (that’s the whole point of an assay, n’est pas?)
  • Human Safety – Operator exposure to dangerous pathogens, reagents  or radioactive chemistry can be minimized with automation.   (think the garlic smell of DMSO to skin exposure…maybe not life threatening, but certainly a potential social stigma…)
  • Assay Integrity – While human safety is a major concern for many labs, protecting assay integrity  is equally important.  Environmental enclosures around automation helps minimize assay contamination due to human interaction

For more information’

Liquid Handlers;

Plate Movers;

Industrial Robots;

January 31, 2013

Do I Really Need An Extended Warranty or Service Contract? (Part I of 2)

Budget time…you know the drill.   Salaries, supplies, new equipment and oh yeah, ongoing maintenance support.   Has there ever been a more sexy and attention riveting topic than maintenance budgeting?  Your options are pretty straight forward;

  • Annual Service Contracts  (typically 10-15% of purchase price, per year )
  • Break/Fix Repair As You Go (cross your fingers, ready the checkbook)
  • Basic Periodic Maintenance (pay for basic upkeep, then Repair As You Go)

If a particular instrument is critical to your labs mission you cannot afford downtime.    And, while we are on the subject, exactly what types ofincell_2000instruments are mission critical?   Of course, the answer to that question will be different for every lab and largely depends upon their focus area.  For instance, if you have are in a cell biology group and have a high content imaging system such as a GE IN Cell, it might be wise to put that unit under a service contract with the manufacturer.    This is advisable for any instrument that can be considered unique or expensive but could even be extended to relatively new technology such as microfluidic based analyzers.    Caliper (now Perkin Elmer) provide a line of such analyzers for enzymatic assays as well as nucleic acids and protein analysis.   The first and second generation instruments are still out there and they require a great deal of TLC and in depth operation and support knowledge.   Newer versions of these refrigerator sized devices are much more compact and a lot less support intensive, eli12 Sipper LabChipminating complex laser alignments and environmental controls.  Still, while the instruments themselves may be easier to service, the actual “microfluidic chips” that perform sampling and separation cost several thousand dollars each and users may run the risk of voiding the chip warranty if they don’t use the OEM to maintain the instrument.  Stick with the OEM service contract.

Okay, so what instruments that are less specialized…do you really need to spend your precious budget dollars on annual service contracts?   Let’s take a look at the staple of many labs, liquid handlers.    There are literally thousands of such units from companies like Beckman Coulter, Tecan, Hamilton, Agilent and Perkin Elmer.    These XYZ robots offer great pipetting repeatability and walkaway automation of mixing, filtration, incubation and other critical assay steps.    A liquid handler that cost $100-150K ten years ago can still command a $10-15K+ price tag for an annual maintenance contract.   That’s a lot, but is it really necessary?  Liquid handlers, at least the good one’s from mainstream companies like those listed above have proven to beTecan EVOremarkably reliable.   With even basic annual maintenance, these instruments can run trouble free for the foreseeable future.   In fact, most OEM periodic or preventative maintenance (PM) procedures are just that, minimal approaches that clean, inspect and lubricate.   One exception would be Tecan, whose EVO PM procedure calls for replacing all fluid path components making their PM (and subsequently their annual maintenance agreements) costs some of the most expensive.  Is that necessary?  Probably not, but one could argue that such a thorough approach is akin to performing a ‘field refurb.’   If your lab has GxP requirements, this would certainly be advisable, but otherwise you might think about doing this every other year.     If you own a Beckman FX /NX,  or PE Janus  you might want to follow the Tecan lead, and get that ‘field refurb,’ especially if you have never had this level of service after several years of use.

Be wary of annual contracts for integrated robotic systems.  A system with an industrial robot in a safety enclosure might tend to many additional instruments such as plate washers, readers, centrifuges, incubators and so on.   If you apply the 10-15% of sales price logic to the purchase price of the system, you will find your coverage costs being inflated by things that could never fail like the extruded aluminum tables, the safety enclosure or even the design and build labor that was factored into the original system price tag.   Better to look as the individual instruments in that system and determine their support costs piece by piece, not in the aggregate.

(In Part II of this post, we will look at the service requirements of thermal cyclers, plate readers and centrifuges).