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Going Automated Means More Consistency and Freedom

For companies processing hundreds or thousands of plates per day, one could build a business case for switching to an automated pipetting system on throughput alone. Robots are faster and less expensive to feed and care for than humans are.

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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For companies processing hundreds or thousands of plates per day, one could build a business case for switching to an automated pipetting system on throughput alone. Robots are faster and less expensive to feed and care for than humans are. These kinds of highly parallel, high-throughput workflows are relatively rare, however. For medium-size, smaller-throughput labs, the speed advantages of automation may be difficult to achieve. Keith Roby, global life sciences marketing manager at Beckman Coulter (Indianapolis, IN), puts it simply: “You don’t always get a higher throughput when you automate. That point gets lost on a lot of people.”

Today even small labs can achieve a solid return on investment from ALH systems. Automation enables scientists and technicians to work on more critical tasks while eliminating inconsistencies resulting from human error.

Automated Aliquoting Liquid Handler | CV2000 Thermo Fisher Scientific | 

Inconsistency arises from pipetting errors that include incorrect volume delivery, mistaken reagent bottles, lost sample tubes, and variability due to technique. Humans also tend to overuse pipette tips, which can result in cross-contamination. The volumetric dynamic ranges involved in modern biological assays can also flummox human operators: no technician’s eyesight is sufficiently acute to determine the dispensing accuracy of a two-microliter aliquot.

“Lab workers, in the U.S. and Europe in particular, are highly paid,” adds Tom Osborne. In many situations a trained technician can execute a liquid handling method faster than a robot, especially when method development and instrument setup are taken into account. “But with automated systems these workers have the ability to walk away and do something more productive with their time.” That, says Mr. Osborne, is a particularly attractive “avenue to return on investment. The more highly trained the technician, the greater the ROI. The monotonous nature of this sort of work is reason alone to want to walk away.” Another factor is eliminating the risk of repetitive strain injury, which can incapacitate the brawniest lab tech. Manual pipette manufacturers learned long ago to devote significant design resources to ergonomics.

On the issue of time savings and consistency, automation provides another benefit: the ability to standardize and automate reagent and standards preparation, an extremely tedious and timeconsuming process. When an experiment runs over several days, technicians are often tempted to refrigerate buffers and standard solutions and use them the next day rather than taking the time to produce them immediately before use. As Peter Mrozinski, product manager for workflow automation at Agilent Technologies (Wilmington, DE), points out, the value of ALH is most evident for standards preparation. One Agilent customer reported saving more than $35,000 in solvent costs ?Automated Aliquoting Liquid Handler | CV2000 Thermo Fisher Scientific | and rework in one year by employing a liquid handler to make up solutions and standards.

Enclosed Benchtop Workstation | MICROLAB NIMBUS Hamilton Robotics | 

Sample preparation is a bottleneck in many workflows such as nucleic acid and protein extraction, PCR, and high-throughput HPLC analysis. ALH speeds up the process but does not address all sample-related issues. A sample prep employing magnetic particle technology is greatly accelerated when all reagents, beads, and even samples are quickly and reproducibly pipetted into plates before beginning a run. Many instruments combine sample prep and liquid handling functions. “However,” Merja Mehto adds, “standard preps will still require extra centrifugation or a vacuum step and won’t be accelerated significantly by ALH.” Several companies— for example, Agilent—have ALH systems or workflows dedicated to sample and standards prep.

ALH has given rise to businesses based entirely on highthroughput dispensing. In February, BioStorage Technologies (Indianapolis, IN), which specializes in sample management for the life sciences, expanded its European operations to include sample preparation services. Services include sample aliquoting, nucleic acid extracting and verifying, and processing of blood cells (mostly for medical and pharmaceutical testing). The company also provides back-end tracking and inventory management for managing large numbers of samples. Again, the theme here is consistency and quality, which are to automation in liquid handling what ALH is to manual pipetting. Russ Hager, senior director at the company, described these services as “renewable resources” with complete audit trails for drug discovery. BioStorage counts among its customers the world’s largest biopharmaceutical companies and clinical research organizations.

When discussing the acquisition or upgrade of an ALH system, vendors need to gauge the configuration the potential customer really needs. Sikander Gill compiled a checklist to ensure that customers receive the right amount of automation for their needs, with some room to grow:

  • Throughput: The level of automation depends on the anticipated number of plates likely to be processed in a day, a week, or a year and how much downtime is expected. Liquid handling modules are commonly available in single-channel, eight-channel, or 96-channel formats. Higher sample numbers warrant systems with larger liquid handling modules and deck capacity.
  • Quality and consistency: These cost more regardless of the instrument or system, although all significant vendors have by now achieved satisfactory levels for both.
  • Workflows: Nucleic acid preparations, PCR, Sanger sequencing, next-gene library prep, ELISA, LLE, or SPE all have slightly different deck requirements. Some users prefer to carry out some operations manually, and some cannot afford end-to-end automation.
  • Volume range: How much liquid does your typical experiment deliver? With what levels of precision and accuracy? These factors greatly affect the liquid handling module design and deck size requirements. Some workflows, for example, require multiple syringes and/or liquid handling arms.

Laboratory Automation Workstation | Biomek FXp Beckman Coulter |