Robots to the Rescue

By making the transition from a manual to an automated process, Syngenta Biotechnology Inc. gained more than they hoped for. The robotic solution automated a tedious manual process as well as allowed SBI scientists to extract more information from the data being collected.

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Automated Data Collection System Drives Research in New Directions

Syngenta Biotechnology Inc. (SBI), located in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, is the key North American site for Syngenta’s biotechnology and crop genetics R&D, with approximately 400 scientists and support personnel employed at the facility. A portion of these research activities includes the monitoring of various types of fermentation processes by the direct measurement of products over a period of time defined by a scientist acting as a principal investigator. The products in the research application are primarily mixtures of various carbohydrates, either liquids or slurries used in the commercial production of ethanol. The manual process for taking direct measurements of these substrates involves agitating small glass media bottles for a set amount of time, weighing the bottles and their contents, and recording the weight of each bottle. In some research projects, dozens of samples need to be continuously processed between 12 and 72 hours, making the task of collecting the data extremely time-consuming.

Apart from representing a bottleneck in the overall pace of the research, the slow rate of data collection does not allow scientists to develop a clear understanding of the reaction kinetics. To increase the rate of data collection, Syngenta faced the prospect of having to assign many personnel to work continuously for 24 hours to agitate and weigh the bottles and record the data. According to George Aux, technical development representative for SBI, a neighbor who worked at Aisin WA Co. Ltd., suggested the idea of using industrial robots to automate the process. After a site visit to the Aisin WA Co. plant in Durham, North Carolina, which widely uses FANUC and other types of robotics, the SBI team became familiar with a variety of available robots and their strengths and weaknesses. Because of the quality of their equipment, SBI called FANUC Robotics North America to help SBI automate their processes, and FANUC referred them to ESS Technologies, Inc., an authorized system integrator for FANUC. For many companies, the prospect of automating a manual process can be daunting. Aux admits, “Our initial concerns about using automation were the cost of implementing a custom solution and the complexity of integrating the components needed to do the job.” ESS outlined for SBI the advantages of robotics automation in their application. Robotic systems are ideal for the type of laboratory research conducted at SBI’s facility. Tedious, repetitive processes are susceptible to variances as a result of decreased concentration caused by human fatigue and boredom. As the task wears on, the possibility of human error increases and concentration wanes. Robots, in comparison, easily take on repetitive processes and offer consistent handling and timing. For SBI, this meant that all samples were ensured of receiving the same amount of agitation and the weighing of the samples could be performed at a consistent pace, increasing throughput. Robots can work 24/7/365 with minimal routine maintenance, and their programming can easily accommodate multiple test setups for handling the agitation rates and weigh cycles for various product samples. Robotic modules also offer a compact footprint, allowing the system to fit into existing laboratory space.

As a first step in designing an automated solution, ESS performed a thorough analysis of the process to be automated, to develop a clear understanding of what SBI hoped to achieve. According to Aux, “The staff at ESS was able to collect all key design elements and bundle them in such a way as to make the use and upkeep of the system as simple as possible. Various interactions took place over the life of the project, which ensured not only a high degree of transparency but also served to troubleshoot some of the unique features our system employed.”

The final solution integrated a FANUC LR Mate 200iC robot with ESS-designed gripper-style end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) and a Model WM3002 weigh scale from Mettler Toledo. The system interfaces with any PC running a Windows® XP operating system to record the weight of each bottle. ESS mechanical engineers designed a custom tray to hold the glass media bottles, allowing the robot to precisely pick the bottles and replace them after the data is collected, while the PC interface easily tracks each bottle and its corresponding weight according to its location in the tray. The six-axis design of the LR Mate 200iC robot offers the flexibility the software engineers needed to create a program that could pick a bottle and agitate it in an up-and-down as well as a circular motion. In early system tests at ESS headquarters in Blacksburg, Virginia, the media bottles were partially filled with water and a few drops of colored dye to verify that the agitation by the robot was sufficient to thoroughly mix the product. After the agitation cycle is complete, the robot places the bottle on the integrated weigh scale. The weight of the sample is recorded by the PC interface, and the robot returns the bottle to the tray. The robot handles 6-10 cycles per minute, depending on the required agitation and the grid size.

The advantages of the robotic data collection system quickly became clear to the scientists at SBI. As Aux explains, “One valuable product of the fermentation process, ethanol, is measured by physically removing a sample from the reaction, purifying it through filtration and then applying one of several off-line analytical tools to determine its concentration. Another product of fermentation is carbon dioxide gas. The amount of carbon dioxide gas released from the reaction is directly proportional to the amount of ethanol, providing researchers with an indirect means to measure ethanol accumulation. The amount of evolved carbon dioxide gas can be determined gravimetrically by using precision balances.

“The primary purpose for automating our research activity was to dramatically increase the precision and number of the measurements of the fermentation performance of many reactions being run simultaneously between 12 and 72 hours without a scientist being present for the sample collection, processing and analyses. Furthermore, by leveraging the relationship between carbon dioxide evolution and ethanol production during the fermentation process, we can avoid having to use more sophisticated and expensive analytical techniques to generate the necessary data to make performance assessments.”

According to Aux, “The most positive results [of automating the data collection process] came in terms of the type of data, its quantity and quality. The raw data flow increased several thousand percent. The data itself has driven the research we do into new areas and has enabled a much more comprehensive understanding of our processes. Through the use of our robotic system, SBI has been able to increase the speed of data collection and interpretation, ask and answer questions previously not addressed using other technologies, and, most important, derive more value from the same work. These benefits mean that the robotic system paid for itself in less than one year, not something we can say about most analytical tools we use at our facility today.”

The clear success of implementing a robotic solution has changed how SBI views the idea of automating its research processes. Aux says, “Our experience with ESS exceeded our expectations during all phases of the design, construction and installation of our robotic system. We would certainly consider automated solutions for other applications in our research platform. For us, the key to considering the use of a robotic system is the duration of a research project and the need for the continuous routine manipulations of materials. Having successfully utilized an automated solution for this project helps other members of our organization see the potential of robotics and understand how to best use this technology.”

By making the transition from a manual to an automated process, SBI gained more than it had initially hoped for. The robotic solution not only automated a tedious and time-consuming manual process, but the system also allowed SBI scientists to extract more information from the data being collected. This new insight has allowed the scientists to take their research in new directions without burdening the company with either the high cost of additional personnel or expensive analytical tools. The added value of the robotic system quickly allowed the customer to realize a return on their investment and take research projects to a new level.

Syngenta Biotechnology Inc.’s ambition is the development of practical and commercial solutions for the problems farmers are facing today. Another objective of the agricultural biotechnology research at SBI is to improve the quality and nutritional benefits of food crops. For more information about SBI, please go to www.syngenta.com.

ESS Technologies, Inc. is an authorized FANUC Robotics system integrator. In addition to robotic automation solutions, ESS specializes in complete packaging line design, manufacture and integration. To learn more, visit www.esstechnologies.com.

Categories: Laboratory Technology

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Maximizing ROI

Published: January 1, 2011

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