Streamlining Workflows, Connecting Operations
Eric Matthews, Midwest sales manager at BMG LABTECH (Cary, NC), notes that the commoditization of plate handlers has led to greater visibility for companies specializing in dedicated microplate handlers, as opposed to large robotic systems. Matthews mentions companies like Caliper (a PerkinElmer company) and Hudson Robotics in this regard.
The same technologic and economic factors are allowing vendors like Stäubli and HiRes Biosolutions, which manufacture industrial-scale robots, to enter laboratory and research markets. “Laboratories are using Stäubli robotic arms in many interesting ways,” Matthews says. Additionally, these players are teaming with vendors of industrial automation software to create ultrafast microplate-centered automation systems that, according to Matthews, “practically eliminate all workflow bottlenecks.”
Timothy Sherrill, program manager of integrated solutions at Beckman Coulter Life Sciences, describes this trend as “automation pushing out into the lab. Vendors are combining applications with hardware to provide a better out-of-the-box experience for end users, while requiring less training.”
Since serving the needs of resource-rich labs is not an issue, vendors of microplate handlers must now focus on the needs of labs with limited financial and human resources that need automation. Since both high- and low-end systems have become easier to use, both dedicated and large automated systems allow labs to take on microplate-based automation tasks that once required automation specialists.
“More and more systems from companies like Hudson and Caliper are going into core labs at universities. Labs can acquire these plate handlers, put them into a fume hood, and perform many tasks without a lot of automation expertise,” Matthews tells Lab Manager.
There has also been a retrenchment of sorts within industries that comprised the traditional market for plate handling. Pharmaceutical companies are screening a fraction of the compounds they tested during the late 1990s and early 2000s, for example. This shift, from “the power of big numbers” to more focused screening, has been a boon to less sophisticated plate-handling systems. Those that shuttle microplates between a stacker and one device, say, a reader or washer, can handle a formidable share of workflows.
“Stackers now have greater functionality,” Matthews adds. “Ours is just a plate feeder, but others can move from a washer to a handler. And that one step, two-instrument integration, solves about 90 percent of the problems for many core facilities. Not every lab needs a traditional enclosure with fifteen different things going on inside.”
Until about five years ago, sophisticated systems dominated. Today, the trend is toward using smaller, safer robots designed for laboratory use. Beckman Coulter Life Sciences, for example, has moved from the lab-focused ORCA (Optimized Robot for Chemical Analysis), to an industrial arm and now to the Precise Automation PF400, a device that operates alongside workers without the need for a safety barrier.
“Automation vendors now have platforms that address most common laboratory liquid-handling requirements with more that can be done on the deck of the instrument,” notes Sherrill. When a laboratory’s workflow goes beyond these stand-alone capabilities, adding one or more accessories (thermocycler, centrifuge, plate washer, plate sealer, etc.) is easily accomplished. “Software to handle these systems has progressed with an increased focus on data management.”
Range of needs
Markets for microplate handlers are characterized by a huge range of needs, from simple handlers and stackers that streamline simple workflows, to roomsized, multimillion-dollar setups. BioTek Instruments (Winooski, VT) serves the more straightforward low- to mid-range need for automation. With the capacity for up to 75 microplates, the company’s BioStack line of plate stackers enables automation to single microplate washers, dispenser, or readers.
In late 2013, BioTek expanded its BioStack Microplate Stacker line with the BioStack 4, the first BioTek stacker capable of handling plates with lids. BioTek also added products for cell imaging and washing/dispensing.
“Until now, labs that worked with lidded plates had to move up to a full-featured microplate handler, which raises acquisition costs up to the forty to fifty thousand dollar region,” says Jason Greene, BioTek product marketing manager. “BioStack 4 works with standard plate lids, so users don’t need to purchase the consumable from us,” Greene adds.
The device has the capability of de-lidding the plate, delivering it to a plate washer, then re-lidding and delivering to storage. Or, in the case of contamination-sensitive cells, plates can retain their lids during a reading operation. Lidded microplate operation is indicated for many cell-based operations (culturing, screening, or cell-based assays) or processes where evaporation may be an issue. Living cells are prone to contamination by adventitious organisms. Lidding allows investigators to aspirate and replenish media with confidence. Evaporation can result in overly high readings, for example, or loss of critical working volumes. “There’s not a lot of volume in most microplate wells to begin with,” Greene observes. Microplate handlers lacking lidding/de-lidding capability must rely on the tenuous “seal” created by stacking plates on top of each other.
BioTek’s focus on low- to mid-range automation does not strictly limit the company to those markets. When a big-budget customer wishes to automate an entire assay, BioTek turns to one of its more than 20 partners, such as Hamilton Company, HighRes Biosolutions, or Thermo Fisher Scientific. “Their robot ties all those operations together, but our components are part of that process,” Greene says.
BioTek’s partnering activity is not unique among automation companies of modest size. To facilitate those collaborations, the company maintains a privilege-based FTP website, its Automation Integrators’ Site, dedicated to automation partnerships. BioTek constantly updates the site with solid model drawings, software, and programmer documentation, to facilitate integration of its instruments with larger automation systems. BioTek is also involved in SiLA (Standardization in Laboratory Automation), an organization dedicated to interoperability of automation components and systems.
For additional resources on Microplate Handlers, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit www.labmanager.com/microplate-tech