Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Design Hurdles, Design Solutions

Innovation in electronic pipettors may overcome shortcomings of the past.

by Rob Zier,Marc Hamel
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In the Guest Spotlight section of the November 2007 issue of Lab Manager (Vol. 2, No. 11, p. 10), Ned Gravel said, “If we treat people as resources we may get maximum ‘use’ of them, but we will not get maximum ‘benefit’ from them.” If viewing people (personnel) as “resources” is counterproductive to successful lab management, how then do we increase efficiencies, standardize procedures and improve the workplace, and still accept (and account for) individual variability and idiosyncrasies?

One answer lies in using proper and productive lab equipment, which produces standardized results regardless of the technician involved. Electronic handheld pipettors are one type of equipment that can achieve that goal.

Electronic pipettors have been around for 22 years and were spurred on by the success of manual handheld pipettors, which preceded them. Yet their acceptance by the research community as a whole has been a challenge for instrument designers and manufacturers. Since they comprise only 10 to 15 percent of the total in-use pipettor market, if electronic pipettors meet so many of the modern lab’s needs, why has their use been so limited?

The good

While all pipettors rely on the same principles of air displacement and hydraulics to move liquids and, if properly manufactured and maintained, deliver the same accuracy and precision at a given volume, user variability can and often does account for less than optimal performance. This is especially true with manual pipettors, for which the aspiration and dispensing of samples are predicated on the user’s ability to push and release a plunger the same way, at the same angle, and at the same speed every time a sample is delivered. Compounding these issues are factors such as fatigue, distraction, general carelessness, variability in the quality of consumable tips being used, and viscosity or density of the samples being manipulated by bench scientists and laboratory technicians.

Electronic pipettors are designed to overcome these issues with the use of a microchip-controlled motor that moves the pipettor’s piston in a highly reproducible manner. They also allow the user to vary the speed of aspiration and dispensing such that they can be preset or changed on the fly to accommodate differing protocols and samples or reagent types. Fatigue and distraction issues are greatly reduced by virtue of the fact that a simple press of a button initiates piston motor movements, eliminating the numerous thumb and arm motions required with manual pipettors. Additionally, because of the instrument’s ability to aspirate a large amount and then dispense portions of that amount, the pipettor doubles as a repeat dispenser capable of delivering a series of equal or differing smaller aliquots in an extremely repeatable way to multiple plate wells or individual tubes. This bodes well for lab managers looking to alleviate repetitive strain disorders brought about by long-term manual pipetting activities. The goal for many laboratory managers is to reduce the total pipetting duration, and electronic pipettors certainly help in attaining this goal. An electronic pipettor provides two highly accurate tools while reducing workplace motion-related injuries common with the repetitive use of manual pipettors.

The ultimate advantage provided by pipettors is that they enable center-to-center tip spacing to be adjusted for pipetting applications that involve multiple sample transfers between various labware formats or into gels. These types of pipettors are available from three companies: Viaflo, Rainin Instruments and Matrix/Thermo Fisher.

Two companies supply expandable spacing pipettors that require manual manipulation to set and affect tip spacing. One pipettor features one-handed tip spacing adjustments at the press of a button. This is accomplished by employing a small motor in the pipettor’s lower end, which serves to expand and contract tip spacing when desired. Tip spacing can be altered on the fly from 4.5 mm to 14.0 mm. Adjustable tip spacing translates into significant efficiency gains, especially for multichannel sample transfer and gel loading applications typically performed with single-channel pipettors that require strenuous repetitive arm motions and often result in frequent transcription errors.

The bad

The trouble with electronic pipettors is threefold. First, they come with manuals and as a result are not typically user friendly or intuitive. This means some patience and practice are required in order to become proficient. Second, many have serious battery issues. As with early cell phones, the batteries and charging capabilities are problematic and can result in a shortened battery life cycle and potential frustration for the user. And third, boot-up times can be excessive. Waiting for an electronic pipettor to “go live” can frustrate even its most ardent supporter. Generally, it is considered faster to pick up an old manual pipettor and get right to work. All three of these factors contribute significantly to the slow acceptance of electronic pipettors and have fueled the need for more inventive products to overcome the shortcomings of past products.

And the ugly

Price. A two-in-one instrument is great—even better is one that adjusts to various labware types, unless, of course, it costs twice or three times as much as expected. Unfortunately, many electronic pipettors do.

One solution

The Vision and Voyager ranges of electronic pipettors recently introduced by Viaflo address pipetting challenges in today’s modern laboratory. The company cites recent advances and widespread acceptance of electronic devices in the consumer electronics and personal entertainment industries as significant drivers behind their innovations. Additionally, the company sought to deliver to the market a next-generation class of products that address a broad spectrum of health and safety concerns as well as best-in-class pipetting performance.

The resulting range of products incorporates an intuitive and highly recognizable user interface navigated by a unique touch wheel that provides the fastest volume and speed settings in the industry. Products also feature full-color display with active help files (multilingual) to assist in programming. A fast-charging, lightweight lithium ion battery offers long-lasting power with minimal weight. The Voyager models feature motorized tip spacing adjustments supporting efficient transfer of eight or 12 samples regardless of the labware used. Other firsts include Bluetooth wireless PC communication, electronic calibration reminder clock, simple calibration for pipette or repeat dispense applications, and a tip-fitting design that requires the industry’s lightest tip load and ejection forces while ensuring that tips remain sealed and never fall off, thus enhancing the overall pipetting experience. Finally, the pricing of these “two-for-one” pipettors is only slightly more than that of a quality manual pipettor.