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The pipette tips of an automatic liquid handler put samples into a black tray of tubes in a robotic lab workstation.

Assays and Automation in Robotic Workstations

These technologies improve a lab’s output and save on priceless resources

Mike May, PhD

Mike May is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas.

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The evolution of robotic workstations resembles that of computers. Gargantuan systems that only experts could operate gave way to smaller and more user-friendly systems. Despite the decreasing size and simplified use, today’s robotic workstations often outdo their predecessors, thanks to ongoing improvements in various technologies.

A decade or so ago, automated liquid handling conjured up images of room-size systems at pharmaceutical companies costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and run by teams of experts for operation and programming. Today, less than $10,000, enough bench space for a microwave oven-size device, and some taps on a graphical user interface can get most any scientist going in automated liquid handling. A huge workstation handles far more samples, but that’s not needed in most basic research labs. In fact, some scientists turn to a do-it-yourself approach to automate processes in a lab.

“Despite the decreasing size and simplified use, today’s robotic workstations often outdo their predecessors, thanks to ongoing improvements in various technologies.”

Although life science and commercial labs primarily use robotic workstations for liquid handling, that’s not the only process that can be automated. These platforms can also heat or cool samples, seal multi-well plates, and more. One team of scientists turned esterase-based biosensors and a robotic workstation into a pesticide-detection system, and the team reported that “using a robotic system can be easily integrated in industrial production lines, improving the monitoring efficiency, as well as the use of real-time biosensing devices for environmental detection.”

When it comes to the basic reasons to automate a workstation, most scientists know that this technology can improve a lab’s efficiency. Plus, reducing human intervention leads to fewer errors and variability in experiments. Despite those benefits, some labs get more out of this technology than others.

“Robotic workstations stand out in situations with invariant workflows,” says Sydnor Withers, manager of instrumentation R&D at Promega. “Clinical, forensic, and analytical service labs that run the same tests or assays have a need to automate repetitive tasks.” Plus, those labs benefit from the tracking of samples and how they were treated, which are two of the strong points of a robotic workstation.

Nonetheless, the capabilities of automated workstations keep growing. As access to this technology expands to more labs, the applications and modifications will expand as well.

Enhancing the advancement

More than the parts of a workstation matter when it comes to what it can do. In some cases, advances in one area spawn improvements in another. As an example, Kevin Miller, scientific content manager at Hamilton Company, points out: “Automation and assay technologies are locked in a perpetual feedback loop, of sorts.” He adds, “As one group advances, the other responds with its own advances.” 

The results of those advancing steps let scientists explore more complex questions, often in more precise ways. For instance, Miller notes that today’s “automated liquid handler technology advances are focused on delivering trueness through a wide range of volumes—from nanoliter through microliter—along with workflow execution.” The ongoing trend of miniaturizing assays to use less sample requires the ability to work accurately with very small volumes.

The control of workstations also keeps improving. “Users are guided through system setup through visual guides,” says Withers. “This makes systems more approachable while preventing inadvertent process changes.”

Exploring the economics

Expense comes to mind when any lab manager thinks about an automated workstation. In the days of gigantic systems, the cost of robotic liquid handlers far surpassed the budgets of most labs. Today, some scientists think that automated systems include an economic incentive, but that’s not necessarily the case.

When asked about the top economic benefits of robotic workstations, Withers says, “This is a topic where laboratory robotics are often misunderstood, because there may not be a superficial savings.” He points out that an automated platform will probably require the same amount of consumables and reagents—maybe even more—that are used in manual methods. “Automation becomes economical over the lifetime of the platform,” Withers says. That economic benefit comes from reduced retesting, faster sample accessioning, and improved data integration.

“Automation becomes economical over the lifetime of the platform.”

An automated workstation, though, can also save a lab money in other ways. “Apart from capital equipment, the most costly resource within a laboratory is its personnel,” Miller says. “It’s not at all cost-effective to increase personnel in response to an increase in sample processing.” To handle more samples, a robotic system—an affordable one—could be a lab’s better choice. Such a system could even save a lab money in less obvious ways. As Miller explains, such a device can “reduce or eliminate the risk of repetitive motion injury that can slow individual or laboratory-wide progress.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, labs around the world looked for ways to speed up and ensure accuracy in a range of diagnostic tests. Miller and his colleagues used an automated robotic system to perform a test that can find spike proteins from SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—in just 4 microliters of serum.

Such a public health example reveals some of the crucial benefits—even life-saving ones—of using automated workstations, but many other assays will be run on these systems to expand our knowledge and improve our environment and our health.

For additional resources on robotic workstations, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit