Most scientists or lab personnel with much experience pipetting—especially pipetting over and over—dream of automating liquid handling. This technology can be applied to a wide range of processes, from serial dilutions and cell culture to high-throughput screening and the polymerase chain reaction. Best of all, some platforms make automated liquid handling possible in almost any lab.
Not that long ago, most automated liquid handlers required lots of lab space, mountains of money, and an expert in robotic programming. That limited the users to large pharmaceutical companies and other organizations with deep pockets. Now, for a few thousand dollars and a little bench space, most any lab can add automated liquid handling. Still, some obstacles must be addressed.
When asked about the most common challenges in automated liquid handling, Will Canine, cofounder and chief product officer at Opentrons Labworks, says, “I think getting your automated protocol to work correctly—the fine-tuning and troubleshooting process—is the most difficult part of using lab robotics.” He adds, “It is not that hard to get a protocol coded up that should work, but from there you have to do rounds of trial and error until you get it right, which takes up the bulk of development time.”
Other experts agree that usability should be considered in a platform. For example, Scott Guelcher, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Bone Biology, says, “The two most important criteria of an automated liquid handling system are usability and reliability.”
In a premium commercial liquid handler, Guelcher points out, intuitive user interfaces and redundant systems ensure correct pipetting. Getting those benefits, though, comes at a series of costs, including being expensive to purchase and maintain. As Guelcher adds, such systems “usually require proprietary plasticware.”
Conversely, not spending enough on a system can create other problems. As Guelcher points out, some inexpensive systems for automated pipetting can take a lot of time to set up and still generate errors in a workflow.
So, like many other scientists, Guelcher wants a balance—something at a low enough cost that provides the features required for a variety of uses. And cost really matters. “It’s important to remember that liquid handlers automate common processes that most labs can already perform manually, and therefore, many investigators find it difficult to justify the acquisition of these machines with high price tags,” he says.
An array of advances
Beyond smaller and more affordable options for automated liquid handling, it takes far less expertise to use some platforms. In fact, ease of use is a crucial improvement in this technology. Canine says, “I think developing interfaces that make these machines easier to use for non-automation specialists—meaning, making them more generally for scientists—is the most exciting trend in automation these days.” Most scientists in the market for such technology should expect a platform that can be used without hiring an expert.
Advances in technology from other fields could also improve automated liquid handing. One example comes from machine vision. Here, a camera and image-processing software control the pipettes. The machine vision can perform many tasks, from identifying the installed pipettes, if a well of a plate is empty, the location of plasticware on the platform, and so on. “These capabilities minimize human intervention and setup time while increasing reliability, because the only hardware requirement of machine vision is a camera,” Guelcher says. Although adding a camera increases a platform’s cost, such a system should be easier to set up and less prone to errors, according to Guelcher.
To really make this technology available in more labs and for more workflows, a platform needs to be affordable. That’s an ongoing improvement in parts of this instrument market, which is driving a wider range of applications, instead of just the high-throughput screening where automated liquid handling started.
Expanding the user base
Some less expensive but effective platforms already exist for automating liquid handling. Still, some do-it-yourself scientists will turn to other solutions. Guelcher is one of those scientists.
As an example, Guelcher and his colleagues built OTTO, which is an open-source automated liquid handler. As these scientists reported, this platform “can be fabricated at a cost of $1,500 using off-the-shelf and 3D-printable parts as an alternative to commercial devices.” They also suggest that such a project doesn’t take that much time, and that the resulting platform can be used in common processes such as qPCR.
For some labs, the DIY approach to automated liquid handling just won’t fit the philosophy of the scientists. Some just don’t like to tinker as much as others, no matter how much money can be saved. When budget is less of a concern, it is also easier to purchase an automated liquid handling device. Overall, scientists can now choose from a variety of manufacturers in this product area. In addition, prices for commercial systems range from around $10,000 to one million or more—covering benchtop to industrial systems. To try out this technology, purchasing a used handler might make sense, and some platforms are available for less than $1,000.
So, there’s clearly a range of ways to implement automated liquid handling. Plus, this technology can improve a variety of workflows. The solution for a lab depends on many factors, from applications and required throughput to economics and expertise. To get started, it probably pays to start out small and see how automation works in a lab. Jumping into too much automation without the right preparation could be overwhelming, not to mention a path to a mistake. So, look around, ask around, and see what fits best for your lab.