Robotically Connecting Microplate Operations
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 microplate-based sample preparation for next-generation 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 high-throughput applications such as drug screening and medical diagnostics. Handlers have also found applications in materials, environmental, and forensics laboratories, and in low- to mediumthroughput 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.”
What to look for
Flexibility, automation, 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.
Plate handlers as robotics
“Through the years, microplate handler evolution has pretty much followed the evolution of robots in the workplace,” notes Mr. Papoutsis. Thus, the two have tracked closely from simple pick-and-place devices to the current practice of flexible automation. This trend toward greater flexibility and functionality recapitulates the evolution of non-robotic instrumentation as well.
Robotic systems may be purchased off the shelf like other lab instruments, but the components of personalization or application specificity with robotics are absent in markets for spectrophotometers and chromatographs. “Today, quite sophisticated articulated robotics are designed from the ground up to meet the particular demands of the biotech market. These posses a range of capabilities and prices that allow most laboratories to test the waters with minimal risk,” Mr. Papoutsis adds.
Supporting this trend is the distinctly modular approach that many laboratories take to automation.
“They look for simple, labor-intensive tasks, such as microplate sealing, microplate barcode labeling, or plate reading and use a simple microplate handler to support one or more of these operations. The automation of simple tasks provides walk away time that eventually pays for the robotics platform, and convinces the team that they have made the right choice.” When these benefits accrue, second or third plate handlers may be added to automate workflows even further.
Flexibility provides the technologic basis by which fast, compact, scalable lab automation modules can grow and change with the needs of each laboratory, ranging from compact, benchtop workstations to sophisticated containment- based systems that offer environmental control. “As needs change, most modules are easily repurposed. Today’s investment in laboratory automation modules provides more utility, reliability, and benefits than ever before,” Mr. Papoutsis says.
For additional resources on microplate technology, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit www.labmanager.com/microplates
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