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MindMap: Increase My Lab’s Productivity Through Automation

Driven by the pressure to control costs while generating better quality data, automated, unattended, and reliable operation is what lab professionals are looking for from their instruments.

by John Buie

Driven by the pressure to control costs while generating better quality data, automated, unattended, and reliable operation is what lab professionals are looking for from their instruments. Compact and scalable lab automation modules provide the flexibility labs require to quickly adapt to changing research needs. Such modules range from compact, benchtop workstations to sophisticated containment-based systems featuring environmental control. As research needs change, most modules can be easily repurposed. Today’s investment in laboratory automation modules provides more utility, reliability and benefits than ever before. However, creating an effective lab automation system requires more than the simple purchase of an ‘off the shelf’ package. There are many factors to consider when trying to improve productivity through lab automation, and no single solution will suit all laboratories.

This MindMap presents some of the issues to be considered and taken into account when trying to improve productivity though lab automation, including the integration of different instruments.

Understanding the need to automate repeatable tasks, how it works, how it is converting instrument output into reproducible results, and whether it fits your lab’s needs.

Microplate Handlers: Looking to automate simple, labor-intensive tasks, such as microplate sealing, microplate barcode labeling, or plate reading? A microplate handler can support one or more of these operations.

Microplate handlers range from linear, benchtop models to more complex instruments with articulating arms.

Software: A critical component of automated microplate handling, software should be compatible with a wide variety of instruments in order to facilitate workflows. Purchasers should also carefully consider their available space for microplate handling devices, as space requirements vary from modular benchtop models to standalone containment-based systems.

Linear handlers can integrate between two and four adjacent instruments, such as liquid handlers, bulk liquid dispensers, centrifuges, incubators, microplate readers, labelers or sealers.

More complex microplate handlers with articulating arms have a larger, cylindrical work envelope and can automate more sophisticated laboratory workflows within contained, environmentally controlled environments.

Robotics: While many labs still transport plates manually, robotic handlers have become essential for high-throughput applications such as drug screening and medical diagnostics. Robotic systems may be purchased off the shelf like other lab instruments, but the components of personalization or application specificity with robotics are absent in markets for spectrophotometers and chromatographs. Today, quite sophisticated articulated robots are designed from the ground up to meet the particular demands of the biotech market. These offer a range of capabilities and prices that allow most laboratories to test the waters with minimal risk.

Other labs need semi-automated systems in which a single process, like dispensing, is automated, but the plates are manually transferred to the detection systems. Such labs can suffice with using the plate handler for just one or two operations.

Laboratories requiring total control of all of their microplate-based assay processes will use major robotic handling systems.

Liquid Handlers: Automated liquid handlers encompass a range of instruments and systems whose functions include dispensing liquids rapidly, usually in very small quantities, at user-specified volumes, and with great accuracy, precision and reproducibility.

Assessing workflow requirements is essential when selecting an automation system. Liquid transfers take time, which adds up rapidly as dispensing and other operations increase. Users who work with labile or highly toxic samples or reagents may prefer to process a smaller number of plates per run in order to move them rapidly through the protocol.

Software: A combination of ease-of-use and flexibility in software is an important differentiator when selecting an automated liquid handler. Some software is very easy to use, but is locked into specific applications. A software package that presents operations graphically, provides templates for routine tasks, and adapts to different assays offers the best of both worlds.

Another factor to consider is the effect of physical forces on very small liquid-dispensing volumes used in higher density plates. While 96-well plates remain the most common, 384- and even 1,586-well systems that employ submicroliter volumes are gaining popularity. At these volumes, evaporation and absorption onto the plastic plate surface become issues.

Automate the sample preparation techniques for chromatography analysis

Automate samples through the entire process or specific techniques and for one sample or multiple samples simultaneously. Automate the transfer of the sample to the chromatography instrument.

Using robotic systems to handle sample preparation work: Autosamplers draw from and inject a predetermined set of samples into columns. The use of an autosampler allows greater reproducibility, repeatability, precision and accuracy in delivering precise injection volumes.

Automating the process can be classified into several stages: sequential processing where a single sample follows the steps one by one; batch processing where each unit operation from the procedure is handled for all samples and; concurrent sequential processing where more than one sample enters the chain of operation so that multi-identical operation takes place at the same time.

Address organizational issues: Automating laboratory processes requires more than purchasing equipment. It is the effective use of products and technologies by people educated to work competently in that environment.

Labs with dedicated automation groups may prefer to design their own systems from components they select, but they are the exception. Before undertaking a lab automation program, it is important to consider whether there are internal organizational issues that must first be addressed.

Laboratory automation engineers are needed to assist in the planning, design, implementation and support of laboratory automation systems. Laboratory personnel need to be trained in the products and technologies as well. Laboratories need to move beyond using preplanned settings for equipment, to understanding what the equipment does “under the hood” so that problems can be traced or avoided. Labs need to understand how things work—not at the programming level, but how data is acquired from instruments, how peaks are detected, how baselines are drawn, and how setup parameters can affect those functions. For information on Lab Automation University—training lab personnel to understand and effectively implement automation products and technologies, please visit: