April 5, 2013

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 thTecan EVOe 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 systecaliper-staccatoms 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 BioPAA 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 twister-7900cylinder 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.   Industrialbroken_robotrobots 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.

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;