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Lab Manager's Independent Guide to Purchasing an Automated Liquid Handler

This purchasing guide presents some of the principal decisions that need to be made when purchasing a new liquid handling system, and presents some of the models currently available that may be suitable in each case.

by John Buie
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Liquid handlers are gaining in popularity in all types of laboratories because they offer significant man-hour savings through automation. However, the range of automated liquid handlers available may be overwhelming, making it difficult to decide what would be the best choice for the unique circumstances of your laboratory. This purchasing guide presents some of the principal decisions that need to be made when purchasing a new liquid handling system. Once you're finished checking it out, go to to check out the latest liquid handling systems.

Automated Dispensers

The simplest types of liquid handlers are automated pipettes or dispensers. These instruments are designed to dispense precise and measured quantities of a liquid into a receptor vessel, usually a microplate. Automated dispensers range from single-channel instruments, which dispense one volume at a time, to multi-channel dispensers capable of dispensing up to 1,536 aliquots simultaneously. Other options include the ability to dispense nanoliter-volume solutions and combinations of pipettes and dispensers for mixing solutions.

A. Multi-channel dispensers

Multi-channel dispensers are one of the most commonly used types of automated liquid handling devices, capable of simultaneously delivering a number of measured aliquots of a solution directly into a receiver vessel, usually a microplate.

B. Single-channel dispenser

Single-channel dispensers deliver a single measured volume of a solution in a sequential manner.

C. Nanoliter dispenser

Nanoliter dispensers allow solutions within the nanoliter range to be delivered accurately.

Robotic Liquid Handlers with Plate Transport Functionality

Some automated liquid handlers are fundamentally simple liquid dispensers, but also have a built-in robotic functionality that allows microplates to be moved automatically. This allows for more automation than can be achieved with static plate liquid handlers.

Integrated Workstations

A wide range of automated liquid handlers offers greater functionality than the simple liquid dispensing offered by the more basic models. Integrated liquid handling workstations fulfill a number of roles with minimal input from staff. Some of the most common functions include nucleic acid preparation, ELISA, assay automation, high-throughput screening and protein crystallography, although many other applications exist. Multi-function workstations allow a number of different procedures to be performed for even greater flexibility.

A. Multi-function workstation

Multi-function workstations can be used for both clinical and research applications, including automated barcode tracking of samples, reagents, labware, racks and carriers in a variety of automated processes.

B. Nucleic acid preparation/PCR

Automated liquid handlers designed for nucleic acid preparation tend to enable automated RNA, mRNA, gDNA, and plasmid preparation, for example, as well as a wide range of downstream applications.

C. ELISA/Time-resolved fluorescence

Automation of ELISA processes is an area of increasing importance to laboratory managers worldwide. A number of automated liquid handlers offer automation of microplate-based chromogenic ELISAs, which can be adapted to meet the changing workflow and throughput requirements of today’s diagnostic laboratory.

D. Next-generation sequencing

Next-generation sequencing liquid handlers are emerging as valuable tools in providing large amounts of genetic information in a single run, increasing throughput and reducing sequencing costs. These liquid handlers are finding application in primary research, health screening, personalized medicine, and single nucleotide polymorphism characterization.

E. Solid Phase Extraction/Liquid Liquid Extraction

Automated liquid handlers can be used for liquid liquid extraction (partition chromatography) from sample addition to organic phase removal, with high precision, throughput and accuracy. Solid phase extraction (SPE) allows rapid sample preparation and purification for chromatographic or other analyses. SPE can be automated using dedicated automated liquid handlers.