Remember Razzles? – ‘is it a candy or is it gum?,” so the TV commercial went. (I actually submitted a contest entry calling it ‘Ghandy…a peaceful coexistence of seemly incompatible delights.’ Not bad for 9yrs old and still waiting on a reply.
Servicing liquid handlers can be a lot like Razzles in that you start out thinking you are working on one thing only to show up and find out that you have something else going on.
There are essentially three types of plate based automated systems commonly found in life science research labs.
Robot Centric – A robot arm (manipulator) delivers all consumables to/from a variety of plate based instruments and storage devices. While many such systems include a liquid handler, they along with other instruments are controlled via a separate scheduling software that oversees the assay steps and ensures proper timing. Common examples are Hi-Res Biosolution ACell , PAA automate.it, Agilent BioCel and Caliper (PE) Staccato.
Distributed Robots – Similar to above, except that there are multiple robot arms connected via a conveyor belt or other plate transporter. Each arm is dedicated to a small number of instruments which each carry out the assay in a sequential (first station to last) fashion. Again, one or more liquid handlers may be present in the system however they contain programs that are initiated by a higher level scheduling software. Such systems were very popular in the pharma industry (Thermo Dim 4, Zymark Allegro) rush to process more compounds per day (HTS and uHTS) looking for new chemical entities, but nowadays you be hard pressed to find many survivors still in operation.
Liquid Handler Centric– In this instance, the liquid handler is the heart of the system, which is to say, the liquid handler software runs the assay (no higher level scheduling software). A large number of these types of ‘systems’ consist of just the liquid handler, by itself, simply carrying out pipetting operations. However, as many mainstream liquid handlers now include robotic gripper capabilities, these devices start to be stretched into more capable systems that automate more of the assay freeing up lab personnel for more high value operations. The plate gripper can load/unload consumables for multi-plate runs or can deliver consumables to shaking, heating, cooling or waste locations on the liquid handler deck or may move them off-deck to plate readers, washers, centrifuge, incubators, thermal cyclers, reagent dispensers or storage devices. Examples can be see from well known vendors such as Beckman Coulter, Tecan, Hamilton Robotics, Agilent and Perkin Elmer.
Conclusion – when exploring your options for servicing a liquid handler, be sure to consider any peripheral equipment attached to that device. If the end-user expects their entire system to PM’d during a routine visit, the service tech may be either the bearer of bad news or a well prepared and valued service provider.