Lab Design and Furnishings

Automation and Robotics in Laboratory Design

How technology affects the future of data analysis

Mark Paskanik

Automation and Robotics in Laboratory DesignViewing window for inspections and safety.Credit: Triggs Photography

Automation and robotics have both played a role in laboratory design for many years. However, in recent years we have started seeing a larger increase in this type of design with greater success. Where are we headed next, and how can we plan to take advantage of this successful type of design in the laboratory?

The basics

Thomas Edison is well known for his many inventions and an amazing 1,093 patents. Most of his inventions were based on an early model of automation of specific tasks. These days, laboratory equipment is being designed to increase productivity and reduce the number of repetitive tasks that people need to do. These tasks can be very labor intensive and ergonomically difficult to perform. Many products on the market today help to reduce this repetition. An example would be utilizing a robot in liquid handling. Traditionally, a person would sit at a bench with a pipette tool and repeatedly transfer liquid media in small amounts. Now, robotic arms are used to complete this task with artificial intelligence (AI). These robots can adapt to different sizes and techniques and thus, improve efficiency. A large floor mounted robotic instrument can run 24/7, which greatly increases production.

Education

We are now starting to see programs that focus on educating students in the world of automation and robotics in a multi-disciplinary approach. The Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania offers a Master of Science in Design: Robotics and Autonomous Systems. This program explores the means for orchestrating design agency within material and robotic systems for the fabrication or live-adaptation of experimental architectural prototypes.

In the field of life sciences, the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing offers a course in data acquisition and lab automation. The course covers the entire process by which signals from laboratory instruments are turned into useful data: fundamentals of signal conditioning and sampling; interfacing, communications, and data transfer; markup languages and capability systems datasets; general lab automation; and robotics. A significant portion of this course is devoted to practical learning using LabVIEW.

With these programs becoming more readily available, the workforce of the future will be better prepared to help implement and innovate these new technologies.

When should you automate or use robots?

Really, the question is: why are you not using automation and robotics in your laboratory? Top reasons for doing so include a triple bottom line, ergonomics, data integrity and traceability, process uniformity, and throughput.

The triple bottom line is defined as a framework to evaluate performance in a broader perspective and is based on the social, environmental, and financial framework. Social impact is improved in a variety of ways with automation and robotics. Giving time back to the laboratory staff is a benefit that will greatly improve their productivity. Likewise, the potential to operate a more sustainable laboratory that can run utilizing less energy can have a positive impact on our environment.

Ergonomics is a very important aspect of all laboratories. Tasks such as sitting at a hood or microscope for extended periods of time can lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). MSDs affect the muscles, nerves, blood vessels, ligaments, and tendons. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2013, MSD cases accounted for 33 percent of all work-related injury and illness cases. OSHA has published a guidance on “Laboratory Safety Ergonomics for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders.” The robot in the laboratory will never have these problems and will also allow people to have more time for collaboration and innovation.

Data integrity and traceability can be invaluable when it comes to research and collecting data in the laboratory. You may have heard a news story or seen an article based on research that was affected by poor data. Some of this has been the result of human error. Tracking, data collection, and accountability can be enhanced or improved with automation and robotics.

Process uniformity is enhanced by improved visual inspection. Humans can have difficulty with visual inspections that determine color, shape, and size. This, of course, can be affected by fatigue and other factors which require hand/eye coordination. Advances in computer imaging technology can evaluate the inspection almost instantly and in a repeatable fashion.


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Throughput is an obvious advantage. Many tasks that may have taken a person all day to complete can now be done in a much shorter amount of time. Robots with intelligent vision can perform tasks without breaks and with more reliability in the data.

Case studies

Many laboratory owners are looking at automation and robotics at the equipment level. Other laboratory owners are considering this for their entire laboratory space. Although the laboratories will be occupied by people, you can envision these labs running on their own, independent from human interaction. Of course, this is the extreme case for automation and robotics, but it does lead to an interesting thought on operating laboratories more sustainably and efficiently.

With full implementation of automation and robotics, a laboratory can operate within a closed process environment and one that does not require human thermal comfort. This could greatly impact overall energy consumption and create a new model for laboratory sustainability.

Lab equipment without automation.Lab equipment without automation.Credit: Triggs PhotographyLab equipment with automation line and robotLab equipment with automation line and robot.Credit: Triggs Photography

QualTex Laboratories is the largest, independent nonprofit testing laboratory in the US for blood and plasma products. The laboratory is FDA and ISO registered, CLIA certified, and an approved and/or accredited testing facility by multiple companies and health ministries worldwide. An automation line was installed to increase production by approximately 10 times. Before the installation, samples were required to be processed with many separate pieces of equipment. This, in turn, required employees to transfer materials by cart or by hand within the facility (as seen in Image 1). If you trace the footsteps, you will see a very irregular pattern of flow that is inefficient. By installing the new automation line (seen in Image 2), production throughput was drastically increased. The track line receives the samples and sends them to each piece of equipment based on a bar code system. In addition to this line, a robot is used for delivery and receipt of samples at the end of the line and for storage/retainage as required. In effect, this space does not require human interaction except for routine maintenance and inspections.

Medicago is a pioneer of plant-based transient expression and manufacturing and has always sought more effective ways to improve human health. This company utilizes the leaves of tobacco plants to produce the influenza vaccine. Plants are highly efficient at producing proteins of varying complexity, serving as bioreactors—or mini factories—for vaccines and protein-based therapeutics.

Medicago's plant-based production platform demonstrates agility, accuracy, and speed by eliminating the risk of mutation and contamination during production. It also significantly shortens production timelines. A major robotic factor in this technology is based in its fully automated greenhouse. The leaves from 90,000 tobacco plants are used each year in the production of the influenza vaccine. Large scale robotics lift the potted tobacco plants from the automation line, then move them to the infiltration robots. Plants are then incubated for 10 days before being harvested of virus-like particles utilized in the production of the influenza vaccine.

Without this automation line and robotic features, Medicago would likely not have the means to produce and market the same number of vaccines within a four-week time span. They would probably need a much larger space and more employees to meet the same production goals.

Impacts

Generally speaking, costs to implement these strategies can vary greatly. Custom high-end automation equipment can cost $1 million or more, but individually mass-produced equipment made at a significantly lower cost is becoming more of the norm for laboratory equipment. A Tecan type liquid handler, for example, may only cost a few thousand dollars. The ability to adapt equipment to existing building conditions is improving as well. Floor flatness and vibration control may have been difficult to obtain with sensitive automation lines, but much of this new equipment can be installed without any special change to the infrastructure of the building.

One would think that with the inclusion of automation and robotics, our labs would require fewer people. However, what we are actually finding is that more people are required for data analysis due to the significant increase in production. Until AI becomes more common, we will also see an increase in office space required for our labs.

The design and planning of your laboratory will be impacted by automation and robotics now and in the future. According to Market Intelligence, the Global Lab Automation Market was valued at $3.14 billion in 2017 and is projected to reach $4.64 billion by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of five percent from 2018 to 2025. We can expect the pace of automation and robotics in the laboratory to incrementally increase over time. Will your lab be ready?