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A Trio of Topics Helps Scientists Start Automating

For many labs, automation provides the biggest return on sample preparation because it’s the key time-consuming bottleneck for many processes.

Mike May, PhD

Mike May is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas.

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To smooth out the transition from manual to automated sample prep, though, scientists need to address three issues: what sample prep should be automated, whether to take an online or offline approach, and how much programming they are willing to learn. Experts interviewed here help novices navigate these challenges.

At The National Food Lab in Livermore, California, the question of where to automate sample preparation remains unanswered for Julie Hill, senior vice president of laboratory services. She says, “We’ve tested a couple of instruments for the QuEChERS extraction, but not that successfully.” This process can be used to test foods for contamination, such as pesticide residues. She adds, “We were beta testing, so the instruments weren’t ready for market but it made us a little shy to make the investment.” Still, Hill’s team runs hundreds of samples per week on this extraction. So, she says, “Automation would be cost-effective, but we want to make sure to purchase the right vendor’s equipment that will be robust and reliable.”

Despite a rough start and lingering concerns, Hill says that she will definitely add automation to sample preparation for this extraction. Hill plans to explore the latest options at Pittcon in March. She says, “There, our focus will be to look at automated equipment and talk to other labs.” In deciding what to automate, Hill is taking a productive approach—survey the options and see what works for similar labs. That strategy will help many managers make the best decisions about what to automate.

Also, make sure to compare apples with apples. One lab’s needs can differ significantly from another’s. “Where automation is used and the primary reason for using it, changes from laboratory to laboratory,” says Stuart J. Procter, business development chemist at Metrohm in Riverview, Florida. Quality control labs, says Procter, use automation of sample preparation to improve precision and accuracy, while contract analysis labs might use it to save time and money. Be sure to look for solutions that have been proven in your specific application.

Online or off?

For some sample preparation, the complexity of automation depends on how it is added. For instance, Darwin Asa, senior marketing manager in health sciences at Waters Corporation in Milford, Massachusetts, says, “You have to make a decision between automated offline and automated online sample prep.” Automated offline sample prep is performed separately from the testing devices, such as liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry (LC/ MS). In automated online sample preparation, it’s integrated with the analytical device. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

The offline approach uses one system for sample preparation and another for detection. This makes for a more flexible system, because the sample-prep instruments can be used for more than one detection system. Consequently, an offline system can be used to process many samples without stopping for analysis. In some labs, that might be an efficient technique, especially if the detection device is shared with other labs and not always available.

The offline approach also offers other flexible features. As Eric Phillips, gas chromatography (GC) and GC/ MS marketing manager at Agilent in Santa Clara, California, says, “Offline systems can specialize. For example, there are systems that perform extractions, sample cleanup, derivatizations, serial dilutions, standard additions, and some combination of all of these.” Those instruments can be used like modules that can be connected in many ways to perform different forms of sample preparation. The offline approach can also be more economical in labs that cannot afford overlapping kinds of equipment, such as multiple platforms that all contain—in an online fashion—the same devices for sample preparation.

When throughput matters the most, though, labs should consider online sample preparation. “The online approach is really good for people with lots of experience with the detection technology who really want to maximize their productivity,” Asa says. In some cases, an online system can run around the clock. The integrated sample preparation also reduces the need for expertise in the lab, because the device provides some of that.

Can you code?

The choice of online or offline sample prep can also determine the need for coding. For example, the flexibility of an offline approach can increase the complexity, because the system probably includes a robotic workstation or a robotic liquid handler. “So someone needs to learn to write pipetting scripts that handle the processes,” Asa says.

For most technologies, the coding keeps evolving. You don’t need to know a particular computer language. As Phillips says, “All of that is generally handled by the manufacturers of the automation equipment.” But you will need to program the system to do what you want it to do. “Though that sounds easy,” Phillips says, “you need to be able to translate what is done manually into exactly what you want the system to do.” It can be a little painstaking to patiently “teach” a system to replicate the steps that you’ve been doing by hand, but this is all worthwhile. As Phillips says, “Once this is done, the automation equipment will not forget steps, nor will it complain about working late.”

As technology moves forward, coding needs could get easier and easier. As an example, Hal Wehrenberg, product manager for software at Tecan in Männedorf, Switzerland, describes some sample-prep systems that rely on open platforms “that let you tailor instructions for daily usage.” He adds, “A screen can even show pictures of how to set up the workflow.” These app-like capabilities can change the experience needed to “program” any automation system.

With this information in hand, you can take on sample prep’s trio of automation topics. Ask around to decide what to automate, consider your need for speed or flexibility when thinking online or off, and know the code or find a system that looks more drag-and-drop. Once you make those three decisions, your lab’s sample prep could be easy, repeatable, and more effective than ever.

For additional resources on sample preparation, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit