Letting Robots Do the Menial Work So Labs Don't Have To

Behind every major breakthrough in the life sciences – and even the minor ones – is a long list of tedious steps to get there. Sorting tubes, pipetting, centrifugation, mixing reagents, all of these menial, non-”value added” tasks make up 60% of the cost of producing test results, and they are prone to mishaps that can even ruin a potentially important experiment. In recent years, automation has been vaunted as the Next Big Thing in laboratory research, as it has in many other industries, from manufacturing to fast food.  Kalorama Information's report Robotic Laboratory Automation market details this trend.  

 In this application, automation can refer to a wide range of hardware and software, even robotics; sample preparation and handling can be automated for the entire lab, or automation can be self-contained for specific tasks – for instance, there are a number of fully automated solutions for real-time PCR applications, in which sample prep, reagent addition, thermal cycling, and analysis are all conducted within a single cartridge loaded into an instrument. However, as most research laboratories tend to conduct experiments using multiple methodologies, more universal solutions for automation are usually more appropriate.

 Robotics and automation reduces human error through indefatigability. Robots can perform the tasks that humans cannot do after extended periods of time without experiencing perceptible degradation in the quality of their work. As repetitive tasks, like pipetting, are handled by robots, laboratory personnel will see increased relative speed in operations and a greater degree of consistency and precision in preanalytical work, producing a more efficient workflow. Reducing the time wasted taking these preparation and maintenance steps will give clinicians and technicians more time to devote to the more important task of analyzing the results, getting more actual research done, and moving on to the next big study sooner.

 Automation can also be  beneficial through the avoidance of mislabeling and misidentification, mis-sorting, issues with storage and retrieval, and issues with dropped specimens and spillage, which add to error or unwanted extra costs. Furthermore, by keeping technicians out of the repetitive work, repetitive stress injuries can also be avoided, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs and lost productivity.

 Despite automation lately becoming a hot topic in scientific research, it is not entirely a new phenomenon, with developments being made throughout the 20th century and fully automated labs coming into existence in the 1980s. However, laboratories have been relatively slow to adopt automation as the technologies can be quite costly, and while budget restraints have always been an issue in scientific research, laboratories are facing increased financial difficulties, making automation difficult to implement or maintain.

 On the other hand, qualified personnel is becoming more scarce, and the increasing demand and complexity of modern testing makes automation more of a necessity, and the need will only become more evident as technologies in both testing and automation become more advanced.

 Most laboratory automation equipment is focused on liquid or microplate handling, though other applications exist. Such systems can be customized through integration with other mechanized elements including centrifuges, shakers, and thermal cyclers.

  • Liquid handling systems deliver samples or reagents to microplates used in PCR or ELISA, or in other applications such liquid chromatography, immunohistochemistry, or in situ The simplest instruments can dispense liquids from a motorized pipette or syringe, more complicated systems can manipulate the dispensers and containers – some literally mimicking the movements of the human arm – while other devices operate on more sophisticated principles, like acoustic liquid handling.
  • Microplate handling systems automate not only the positioning of microplates used in laboratory studies, but can also be used in labeling, sealing, lidding and delidding, and more. These systems can handle not only the typical 96-well microplates, but plates with 384 or 1536 wells or more, as well as deep-well plates, petri dishes, reservoirs, or even pipette tip racks.

 Below is a few of the major players in automation, all of whom are profiled in Kalorama’s report, Robotic Lab Automation: Specimen Transport Robots, Robotic Centrifugation, Capping Robots, Robotic Liquid Handlers, and Other Clinical Laboratory Systems:

  • Agilent offers solutions in liquid handling, microplate management and robotics, and next generation sequencing sample preparation automation. The BenchBot Robot is a small-footprint robot designed for automated microplate handling, that integrates with Agilent’s instruments and those of other companies, handling sample prep for NGS and microarrays, cell-based assays, enzyme assays, and more. Agilent also produces a robot-accessible microplate centrifuge with a three-second loading time, used for medium- to high-throughput applications like PCR purification and air bubble removal on microplates.
  • Brooks Automation is focused on automated cold storage that can support up to two million samples in temperature ranges from +4° to -190° C; Brooks also offers consumables that support samples prior to placement in cold storage, such as racks, tubes, and plates, as well as devices that handle labeling, capping/decapping, sealing, and piercing tubes.
  • Caliper Life Sciences produces the Zephyr, a desktop liquid handling designed for use in high-throughput sequencing, genomics, proteomics, bioanalytical assays, and commercially available kits used for nucleic acid purification cleanup, PCR setup, protein precipitation, and more. Also available is the Staccato line of automated workstations, with a microplate handler that, depending upon the model, can handle between 80 and 400 microplates and integrate with up to 200 different instruments.
  • Hudson Robotics’ Solo is an automated pipettor capable of single or multichannel (8 or 12 channels) operation and is programmable to undertake most handheld operations but with greater precision; the Solo can be loaded and operated manually, but is also compatible with robot loading systems from most manufacturers, including Hudson’s own PlaneCrate EX microplate handler.
  • Labcyte’s Echo is an instrument that handles liquid using acoustic energy, producing soundwaves that eject precisely-sized droplets from source to microplate, slide, or other surface suspended above the source; the Echo requires no tips, pin tools, or nozzles, and no contact is made between the liquid and the instrument, fluids are transferred in 2.5 nL increments, with larger volumes being transferred at hundreds of droplets per second.
  • Motoman’s AutoSorter is designed for high-volume – up to 1,200 tubes per hour – sorting and processing, automating a multitude of tasks from centrifugation, decapping, and sorting to instrument racks; the system can be operated in a standalone mode or linked with aliquoters, recappers, and other related equipment.