The first lab robot was introduced by Zymark Corporation in 1982. The Zymate robot was used to move labware between various instruments in a ‘pie’ shaped work area, simulating the same procedures followed by theoretically higher priced lab researchers and their assistants. Fast forward 30yrs and the term lab robot can be further applied to several unique devices;
- Liquid Handlers – XYZ robots that pipette reagents, some can move plates using gripper hands. These devices can pipette in a variety of ways from one single channel, 4-12 channels for row or column work or 96 or 384 channels for whole plate transfers. Some liquid handlers are used as stand alone devices (islands of automation) and can also be found as the central components on larger automated systems which provide extended walkaway time for users.
- Plate Movers – Essentially bench top robots that are specifically designed to transport microplates. Unlike more flexible industrial robots, these units are pre-tooled for handling microplates and come with plate gripper hands and plate storage racks. Plate Movers generally have a simple software interface for teaching plate locations so users don’t have to deal with the vast command sets that come with more flexible robots.
- Industrial Robots – While designed for a host of applications from electrical/mechanical manufacturing to painting, welding and sorting, a number of industrial strength robots can be found at the heart of fully integrated systems. Generally chosen for their extended reach, these highly sophisticated devices use a small subset of their potential for moving plate between storage devices and instruments at slower speeds than might be found in other applications.
All of these devices are approaching commodity status is the life science markets (drug discovery, genomics, proteomics…etc) which means that their prices are dropping and their ease-of-use is increasing, resulting in faster adoption and deployment. And while it may be obvious to most, several of the main reasons for automating lab applications remain constants over time;
- Increased Throughput – process more samples without human intervention. This makes lab workers more productive by freeing up time to work on other critical tasks.
- Repeatability – many lab techs can pipette just as good as any liquid handler, however pipetting is time consuming and its repetitive nature can make it an error-prone operation. Liquid handling robots largely eliminate human variability and human error, resulting in more reliable data (that’s the whole point of an assay, n’est pas?)
- Human Safety – Operator exposure to dangerous pathogens, reagents or radioactive chemistry can be minimized with automation. (think the garlic smell of DMSO to skin exposure…maybe not life threatening, but certainly a potential social stigma…)
- Assay Integrity – While human safety is a major concern for many labs, protecting assay integrity is equally important. Environmental enclosures around automation helps minimize assay contamination due to human interaction
For more information’
- Agilent Technologies
- Beckman Coulter
- Dynamic Devices
- Hamilton Robotics
- Perkin Elmer (Caliper)
- Hudson Robotics
- Peak Robotics / PAA
- Perkin Elmer (Caliper)
- Precise Automation
- Thermo Fisher Scientitic