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Manual Versus Electronic Pipettes

Survey shows the common reasons why most labs have yet to embrace electronic pipetting, and outlines the benefits of making the switch

Tom Bentivegna

Tom Bentivegna is a group product manager at INTEGRA Biosciences. Tom's role includes responsibility for handheld electronic pipettes between one and 384 channels. With a master’s degree in business administration,...

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Accuracy, quality, and reproducibility are imperative for all laboratory liquid handling processes. Electronic pipettes offer all these benefits, but many laboratories have yet to make the switch from manual alternatives. A common reason for this hesitancy is the price concern, even though using electronic pipettes can lead to significant savings in terms of reduced instrument requirements, less hands-on time, and a decrease in repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). A recent survey of more than 2,000 lab professionals worldwide gave insights into the ongoing popularity of manual pipettes in today’s digital age, the results of which are revealed in this article. 

Short-term cost for long-term benefits 

Pipettes are the most heavily used and relied upon instrument in the majority of laboratories, and the adoption of electronic pipettes can save staff time by increasing the speed of numerous procedures. However, 54 percent of the lab professionals surveyed disclosed that they do not use electronic pipettes in their workflows, with 42 percent citing the cost of acquisition as the primary reason. 

Any expenditure associated with upgrading to electronic pipettes should be seen as a long-term investment, for which a return will rapidly be seen throughout the laboratory. One of the greatest benefits of these tools is the use of a repeat dispense mode, which offers the ability to aspirate a specified volume of liquid and dispense it into smaller aliquots. This saves time by eliminating the need to make multiple journeys to and from the reservoir, while cutting down on the likelihood of user error. Such multi-dispense functions are particularly useful when precise dispensing is required, or when it is important to reduce wastage of an expensive reagent or solution. 

Similarly, in terms of ergonomics for laboratory personnel, electronic pipettes reduce the strain placed on the hand by repeatedly pressing and releasing the plunger. In many labs, a single analyst can work with a pipette for several hours each day, and electronic pipettes can reduce the number of repetitive actions in a protocol. They also help to minimize the physical effort required for aspiration and dispensing to almost zero, decreasing the risk of sick leave due to RSIs. 

Furthermore, electronic instruments are durable, robust, and have more straightforward calibration processes, reducing the time and expenditure associated with maintenance. They can also perform the tasks of multiple other instruments in the lab, replacing devices such as repeaters, dilutors, and titrators. These production and performance gains, combined with the instant usability of electronic pipettes, can quickly eliminate the cost differential compared to manual pipettes. 

The right tasks to streamline

The lack of availability of electronic options in laboratories was the next most common reason for not routinely selecting these pipettes, cited by 31 percent of those surveyed. Yet 25 percent of respondents regularly dedicate nine to 15 hours per week to manual pipetting, and 21 percent spend more than 15 hours per week on such labor-intensive tasks (Figure 1), making these ideal procedures to optimize through investment in electronic pipettes. 

Figure 1: Number of hours per week spent pipetting.
Figure 1: Number of hours per week spent pipetting.
INTEGRA pipettes survey

The reason why lab professionals may be hesitant to invest in and upgrade to electronic pipettes may be that many of them were initially trained on manual pipettes. Any professional will temporarily need to dedicate time to train on a new instrument; however, modern electronic pipettes are designed to be intuitive, user friendly, and accessible to all. The short learning curve is outweighed by the increased flexibility and functionality, making complex workflows effortless. Some models even provide pre-set programs that prompt users to input basic parameters, such as the dispense volume or the number of times to be dispensed. 

Top benefits 

The features that electronic pipette users liked the most were those associated with the simplification of workflows, as cited by 77 percent of respondents (Figure 2). These include the ability to use multi-dispensing (47 percent), automated mixing (11 percent), and the option to save and recall complicated multi-step protocols (19 percent). Users can define these tailored protocols from start to finish—including customizing volumes and pipetting speeds—and then save them for future use to ensure that they are executed in the same way every time.

Improved ergonomics were another major benefit, as reported by 19 percent of respondents (Figure 2). This is a significant value-add, considering that over three-quarters of the professionals surveyed had experienced prolonged upper limb injuries as a direct result of pipetting activities. The introduction of electronic pipettes should therefore be seen as a way of protecting personnel from injuries caused by the repetitive motion and forces associated with manual pipetting. Electronic pipettes eliminate the need to twist knobs to adjust pipetting volumes, and to press down against a spring to aspirate and dispense. Repeat dispensing modes often allow users to fill an entire multi-well plate in under 30 seconds, drastically reducing the number of pipetting steps while increasing productivity.

Figure 2; Reasons given for using an electronic pipette.
Figure 2; Reasons given for using an electronic pipette.
INTEGRA pipettes survey

Problematic liquids can also be handled more easily and consistently using electronic pipettes, by specifying pipetting speed or choosing reverse pipetting options. 

Embracing electronic pipettes

Many labs continue to select manual pipettes over their electronic counterparts, despite the many benefits these modern, digital solutions offer for simplifying pipetting tasks and eliminating physical strain. The reason for this primarily comes down to budget limitations, alongside the fact that many lab professionals have simply become accustomed to using them. However, for many labs—especially those performing complex or high throughput workflows—it may be time to move on from the comfort blanket of manual pipettes to an up-to-date solution that saves time and money.