At the annual SLAS meeting (January 23–27, San Diego, Calif.)—the “main event” of the year in automation, if you will—American Laboratory spoke with representatives for vendors of robotic platforms and automation systems to find out what is new. The main drivers behind automating a process or lab have not really changed—higher throughput, less hands-on time, improved accuracy and smaller sample volumes remain the prime motivators. Process repeatability and documentation, particularly in regulated environments, are requirements for which automated systems are particularly suited.
While laboratory robotic platforms got their start in pharmaceutical and biological research laboratories and in clinical diagnostics, and those sectors remain the largest consumers, the range of settings is broadening. This is a result of both expanding applications and biological processes being used in more fields, for example, health hazard monitoring in large public spaces. Automated processes allow fast turnaround and large-volume sampling based on genetic studies of mold spores, bacterial and viral samples that are faster and more accurate than previous methods. Forensic labs benefit from automation’s help in providing a secure chain of custody. Non-life science tests are being automated, too, enabling use in everything from mining operations to fracking. Other factors driving development include the day-to-day practicalities of turning repetitive processes over to very capable instruments.
According to Kristina Klette, Ph.D., scientific leader for cellular and protein sciences at Reno, Nevada-based Hamilton , “We are working with bioreactor manufacturers to integrate their systems into robotics workflows using our platforms for those who need to characterize their products and optimize culture conditions. In synthetic biology, in which a researcher might be developing a protein not found in nature, say for use in an industrial application, product characterization is also necessary.” The large number of product samples in bioprocessing and the number of process steps—microbial optimization; identifying best culture conditions and product characteristics; and product isolation, purification and characterization—all benefit from being automated.
Garrett Voss is the product manager for the Hamilton Microlab NIMBUS product line, compact liquid handling workstations that are modular and expandable. As do a number of vendors, Hamilton often works in concert with kit suppliers, instrument vendors and customers to build systems for automating specific procedures. NIMBUS systems can be adapted for a wide range of processes. While “Hamilton is seeing growth in sequencing, nucleic acid extractions, PCR and other genetic testing including CRISPR Cas9 analyses,” Voss notes, “…the company is seeing interest from a great variety of sectors: agrochem labs, crop production, mining, cosmetics, oil analysis, fuels and lubricants, foods and flavorings, biobanking and others.”
The Endeavour Robot from J-KEM Scientific performs solid-phase separations of radiolabeled blood samples.
“There are many unmet needs in lab automation,” says Bob Elliott, president of J-KEM Scientific in Saint Louis, Missouri. He cites as examples the ability to rapidly change the procedure performed by a robot in response to changing research needs, and the need for versatile, but small, framed robotics to automate simple tasks. To address the first need, Elliott says, “I give the customer the robot’s source code and the name of the programmer who made their platform, which makes it easy to change what the robot does.” Addressing the second need, Elliott observes, “there are many processes in the lab that would benefit from automation, but it’s difficult to justify the purchase of a $100,000 robot. The industry needs to offer versatile $20,000 robots.”
As an example, Elliott recalls a unit J-KEM made for a pharmaceutical company using NMR to measure the pKa of a protein, the point at which hydrogen disassociates from the protein. The process involved adding the protein to 40 different pH buffers, then filling a small-diameter NMR tube with the samples. There’s nothing high tech in the application and it’s tedious, requiring the repetitive transfer of very precise volumes of material, characteristics that make it the perfect application for a small, inexpensive robot. The developing cannabis industry also has many labor-intensive tasks that are easily automated. Elliott says, “We make robots for them that fill five thousand cartridges a day. He adds, “A challenge with this industry is that many of the operators have no laboratory experience at all.” Small, dedicated platforms help address that challenge.
The Thermo Scientific Spinnaker Smart Laboratory Robot features an integrated robot-vision camera that doubles as a bar-code reader, enabling automatic confirmation of sample identification, simplifying the workflow and contributing to robust sample tracking and system fidelity.
Thermo Fisher Scientific has introduced the Spinnaker robot that uses vision to read positions as it goes through process steps. The Spinnaker learns these positions and, using the camera, can identify if something is even minutely off in a setup. According to Hansjoerg Haas, senior business director, laboratory automation with Thermo Fisher in Burlington, Ontario, “Someone walking by has bumped into the platform, making it just a little bit off. A new round of tests is started, and, if the image the camera is seeing does not exactly match what it remembers for the process, it autocorrects.” At the start of a run, the camera and software work to ensure that alignments are as specified, bringing high-level accuracy to workflows.
Concurrent with the use of robotics in a number of nontraditional lab settings is the increasing use of genetics in diverse applications. For example, in agroscience, according to Haas, “it may be used by scientists looking for specific traits in a seed breeding program.” Genetic analysis is finding increased use in the diagnostic markets as well, where it offers a high level of accuracy, precision and very detailed screening ability. A prime example is cancer, in which screening blood for genetic markers is enabling detection at very low levels, catching cancer earlier than previously possible. This also allows very fine monitoring of the efficacy of treatments over time. Haas notes, “The beauty of DNA is that it doesn’t matter where it comes from; once you have it, it behaves the same.”
Haas reports that “Large automation is strategic; these platforms provide high-level throughput. Small platforms are more tactical, for applications in which automation is used to fill gaps and provide flexibility.” Benchtop automation—integrating any number of instruments on a bench—is also on the rise. According to Haas, many users are looking forward to uniting an array of benchtop devices with a plate mover and scheduling software.
As automation finds its way into more labs, in more sectors and with greater numbers of users, ease of use and intuitive operation become more important. Scientists and technicians can expect to see higher levels of integration between scheduling software and instruments. More intuitive software will reduce training requirements and streamline workflows. Flexible platforms that accommodate multiple users will put further demands on simplifying operation and will also improve cost benefit analyses for those considering robotics purchases.
Like most technologies, laboratory and process automation developments occur incrementally. However, if intervening years were skipped—if one compared early robots to the models being offered today—it would appear as a sea change. What is clear is that automation is one area in which advances in research and technology are clearly synchronized.
Steve Ernst is editor and general manager, American Laboratory/Labcompare; [email protected]