Integrated Lab Automation for Tight Budgets and Small Spaces

Are you considering whether to enter the world of integrated laboratory automation? Many labs begin with the end in mind and focus on the detection technology – e.g. DNA sequencing, HPLC, mass spectrometry, imaging. Lab automation is often not considered until much later. Sample preparation is frequently a manual activity. Automation is commonly seen only as an answer to sample volume issues. Yet, until it reaches a critical point, increased sample load is often addressed by adding “bodies.”

6 Myths About Buying Refurbished Lab Equipment
6 Myths About Buying Refurbished Lab Equipment

Lab space and budgets are both limited at many labs – even at some large companies. So how can you get the benefits of integration for this scenario? If your protocols need a few or smaller peripherals, you could take a workstation-based integration approach. If you need more capacity or have larger devices to integrate, you can take a distributed integration approach. For this a collaborative robot arm, like the PreciseFlex PF400, is perfect. In both approaches, you can save significant costs by working with a premium refurbished equipment provider, like Atlantic Lab Equipment. It’s not uncommon to save about half the cost of purchasing new equipment.

Why Use Integrated Laboratory Automation?

The benefits of integrated lab automation go beyond addressing high sample volumes. It’s best to think about your plan for automation early in developing your lab processes to take advantage of what lab automation has to offer:

  • Improved process control – repeatability, consistency, error reduction
  • Enhanced sample and material tracking – error reduction, and helpful for troubleshooting
  • Increased lab safety – less repetitive stress injuries
  • Better resource utilization – deploy scientists for value-added activities instead of tedious tasks

Adding personnel might seem like the path of least resistance to handle increased sample load or extra methodologies. But there are significant costs associated with “manual automation.” Besides the direct costs of salary, benefits, and training, laboratory space costs can be an important factor.

In biotech hot spots, like Cambridge, MA, lab rent can approach $80 per square foot per month. The typical lab technician is going to occupy about 20-30 linear feet of bench space. This is about 90-150 square feet, which translates to about $7-$11k/month for the lab space. Don’t forget to add taxes, insurance, and maintenance to that triple net lease, and you’re now over $100/sf. Of course, other places are less expensive – you might only be paying $15-$20/sf in RTP for lab space.

A common lab scenario involves adding instrumentation and automation in a piece-wise approach. Add a fluorometer for plate reading; add a centrifuge for spin-downs; add a washer for, well, washing; add a liquid handler for pipetting; and so on. Each of these instruments operates on their own, connected by “sneaker net.” The lab personnel moves the material from one piece of equipment to another. This is non-integrated automation … YOU are the automation!

When we start to connect each of the components needed to perform a complete protocol, at least physically, and perhaps also informatically, we have integrated automation. The liquid handling system is usually at the center of this type of setup. It’s performing the lion’s share of the work. The other devices are “peripherals.”

The two ways to provide integrated automation for lab protocols are:

  • Workstation-based integrated automation: The liquid handling system is the “hub” that provides the pipetting and the plate movement. Peripherals integrate directly to the liquid handling robot.
  • Distributed integrated automation: A separate robot arm is the “hub” and provides the connection between the liquid handling system and the other peripherals.

Workstation-based Integration

The most cost-effective and space-efficient solution handles the task with the least hardware. Liquid handling workstations are powerful pieces of equipment for the lab. Complex protocols can be performed on many samples in a tight space. Do you have a limited number of protocols that can use a couple of smaller peripherals? Then a workstation-centered integration approach may be your best option.

Early liquid handlers only focused on pipetting. Other operations happened off the robot. Modern liquid handling robots offer much more capability for integrated applications. Of course, liquid handlers can perform pipetting tasks like sample transfers, reagent additions, dilutions, cherry picking, and mixing. But, the ability to mount multiple arms on the workstation enables integrated automation. This allows you to have (depending on the manufacturer):

  • an 8-tip arm for reformatting between different types of labware, or individualized operations like normalization or liquid level sensing for varying sample volumes,
  • a 96- or 384- channel head for plate-based operations like reagent additions or mother-daughter transfers, and
  • a plate manipulator arm for moving plates around the deck and to/from peripheral devices.

That last point is the kicker – a plate manipulator is the key to integration. If your protocols only involve liquid transfers, you may not need any integration. But most protocols need some other devices. Common peripherals include thermal cyclers, shakers, heat blocks, incubators, plate washers, plate readers, magnetic bead plates, or storage.

A plate manipulator can take care of this. This arm includes a gripper to grasp the microplate to move it around the deck. Some arms can also rotate and use a cantilever (sideways) gripping configuration. The Tecan RoMa arm and Hamilton iSWAP arm are two good examples. Other plate manipulators are overhead (vertical) and grab the plate from the top. These manipulators are typically attached to the 96- or 384-tip heads.

Vertical plate manipulators are best when plates only need to move within the main deck area. They can access some peripherals, but only ones that provide plenty of room in the “landing area” for the plate. These devices need to be within the robot envelope, taking up valuable deck space.

Cantilevered plate manipulators are the most flexible. They can access peripherals with tighter entry points; reach outside of the main envelope, which saves deck space; and rotate to access peripherals in different orientations. And, some can reach below the deck to access peripherals under the robot or handle tubes instead of plates.

Distributed Integration

What does the typical vision of a distributed system conjure up? Do we see big, industrial-looking robot arms with an array of instruments circled around a big table behind a tough safety enclosure? This is one way to go, but this is an article about integrating on a budget and in small spaces. How can we talk about distributed automation?

Enter the collaborative robot (a.k.a. cobot). A collaborative robot is a robot arm that is so safe that it needs no safety enclosure. Lab personnel and the robot arm can occupy the same space without risk of injury. This drastically reduces the space needed to operate. These robots can be placed next to the liquid handler and the peripherals to create a complete distributed system on a bench top.

The leader in this category is Precise Automation with the PreciseFlex PF400 sample handling robot. The PF400 is a 4-axis SCARA robot that can live on the bench top. It marshals plates, tip boxes, reagent troughs and other consumables between devices. The arm has a reach of almost 2 ft, a z-height of 16”, and a rotation of 347°. With this, the PF400 can easily access the liquid handler, external storage, and a host of additional devices. The extended reach version can access up about 30”, and an extended height version extended the z-direction to almost 30”. This provides an extensive working volume in a small footprint.

How can adding a robot arm help you to keep costs down and minimize space usage?

  • Smaller, simpler liquid handler – since the liquid handler has fewer responsibilities, you can use a smaller workstation. For example, in the workstation-based approach, you may need a Tecan Freedom EVO 150 or 200 with 2 or 3 arms (one of them a RoMa arm). With a cobot-based approach, you may only need a Tecan Freedom Evo 100 or 150 with 1 or 2 pipetting arms.
  • Multi-tasking – with the extra envelope capacity of the cobot, you may be able to configure one system for multiple protocols, using different methodologies. One liquid handler (usually the bigger investment) and many peripherals. Where with the workstation-based approach you are limited to a narrow range of protocols for the limited peripherals. Automating other, different protocols would require a second workstation-based configuration.
    • Workstation-based approach – double the cost, double the space.
    • Cobot-based approach – less than double the cost (the cost of the extra peripherals), and about the same space (think vertical stacking).

There are two methods to control and coordinate the activities of the robot and devices:

  • Scheduling software, like Genera from RetiSoft, will manage the protocols and help to determine the material flow. In addition, the software can interface with your LIMS system for advanced sample tracking. This software is tightly coupled with the PreciseFlex robots and has a long design history.
  • Direct programming can also be used to statically schedule the order of operations between devices. The PreciseFlex robots include an embedded programming environment that is very similar to Visual Basic. This is a good low-cost option for one or two instrument protocols that do not require dynamic scheduling.

Implementing Integrated Automation – Shameless Plug

Atlantic Lab Equipment has the capabilities to assist with both approaches to integrated lab automation for budget conscious and space limited laboratories:

  • Premium refurbished lab equipment – save significantly over new equipment, with expertly serviced instruments that are delivered with warranty.
  • Precise Automation robots – ALE sells, services, and supports new and used PreciseFlex robots to deliver the most flexible, configurable, and compactly integrated automation.
  • Integration services – our application team can help you configure, integrate, and install your system.

Contact us for more information or to request a quote.