Experimentation in microtiter plates exemplifies the two dominating trends in the life sciences: higher throughput and smaller sample size. Microplate handlers are the robotic glue that connects microplate readers, liquid dispensers, plate storage systems, plate washers, and other equipment essential for microplate-based research and development. Handlers transfer plates between and among these components to allow semi-automated to fully unattended assays.
Microplate handlers range from linear, benchtop models to more complex instruments with articulating arms. Linear handlers can integrate with between two and four adjacent instruments, such as liquid handlers, bulk liquid dispensers, centrifuges, incubators, microplate readers, labelers, or sealers. More complex microplate handlers with articulating arms have a larger, cylindrical work envelope and can automate more sophisticated laboratory workflows within contained, environmentally controlled environments. Traditional microplate-based applications include drug discovery, cell-based screening, and compound management. A rapidly emerging application is automated microplatebased sample preparation for nextgeneration genetic sequencing.
In the early days, microplates varied in size and dimensions. Today they conform to Society of Biomolecular Sciences standards; this allows any handler to process virtually any plate.
While many labs still transport plates manually, robotic handlers have become essential for highthroughput applications such as drug screening and medical diagnostics. Handlers have also found applications in materials, environmental, and forensics laboratories, and in low- to medium-throughput work where unattended operation is desirable.
Automation requirements vary widely among users of microplate instrumentation, and many potential users demand flexibility. “Some laboratories need total control of all their microplate- based assay processes and use major robotic handling systems,” says Lenore Buehrer, product manager at BioTek Instruments (Winooski, VT). “Others need semi-automated systems where a single process, like dispensing, is automated but the plates are then manually transferred to the detection systems. These users are content with using the plate handler for just one or two operations.”
Automation, flexibility, throughput, software, and instrument size are factors potential buyers should consider when acquiring a plate handler. Size is always a consideration for labs short on space. But with many users installing plate handlers within biosafety cabinets, demand for small-footprint handlers is strong.
Flexibility relates to how, and how much, a plate handler interacts with surrounding equipment and processes, but there’s a price point component as well. With entry-level microplate handlers costing $20,000 or more, “users want the greatest functionality they can get for their budget,” Ms. Buehrer notes.
“Potential buyers should consider the speed, expandability, software compatibility, and space requirements of microplate handlers,” says Dino Papoutsis, senior product manager at Agilent (Santa Clara, CA). Labs planning for a variety of assays or assays of increasing complexity may consider articulating arm handlers with a larger work envelope to enable integration with a larger number of devices.
Scheduling software is a critical component of automated microplate handling. To facilitate workflows, software should be compatible with a wide variety of instruments. Purchasers should also carefully consider the space requirements for microplate handling devices, as space requirements vary from modular benchtop models to standalone containment-based systems.
BioStack™ Microplate Stacker
- Enhances convenience, flexibility and customizable, walk-away automation in microplate-based applications
- Accommodates up to 30 or 50 96- to 1536-well ANSI standard plates, and up to 75 low-volume, half-height microplates
- Allows worry-free operation, even under the heaviest usage, and has a small footprint
- Modular attachment can be integrated with all BMG LABTECH microplate readers
- Automatically loads, unloads, restacks, and continually feeds up to 50 microplates for great improvements in speed and automation
- Allows users to write their own scripts using the script mode
- Accommodates all types of microplate formats
BMG Lab Tech
Cap-smart Tube and Microplate Sealer
- Instrument is semi-automated and uses a choice of electric or pneumatic drives to seal tube racks from any manufacturer
- Frees staff to perform more important tasks – the cycle time is only 5 seconds
- Works with 96-well plates, deep-well blocks and 96-format tube racks
MiniSeal Microplate Sealer
- Just requires plugging into a single electrical outlet to operate
- Eliminates the need to site your thermal sealer near a compressed air source or buying a dedicated compressor
- Uses a pre-set sealing pressure to deliver highly reproducible plate seals
- Ensures operator safety with its unique twinbutton operation