Liquid Handling Robots: Benefits and Available Solutions
Research and hospital laboratories, pharmaceutical companies and other industries perform a vast number of chemical tests on an ongoing basis. The testing procedures require pipetting, which involves transferring a precise amount of liquid from one vessel to another. The work is highly repetitive, tedious, and error-prone.
According to Global Market Insights, the market for liquid handling robots was around USD 3 billion in 2020. The market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 6.4% between 2021 and 2027.
We explore the subject of these robots through the following topics:
- Industries Using Liquid Handling Robots
- Reasons to Automate
- Types of Liquid Handling Robotics
- Complementary Solutions
- Helpful Tips in Making Your Decision
Industries Using Liquid Handling Robots
Industries using liquid handling robots include:
- Commercial Testing Laboratories
- Research Laboratories
- Pharmaceutical Companies
- Food and Beverage Industry
- Water and Fuel Research
Reasons to Automate
Pipetting robots will not replace human beings in the laboratory, at least not any time soon. Many lab tasks require people, including tending to a robotic pipetting solution. Setting up the machine, loading samples, operating the controls, and analyzing the results are all done by laboratory technicians.
Nonetheless, there are many advantages to automating your pipetting processes. Here are the top five reasons to consider automating your pipetting processes.
According to an article published by the University of Pittsburgh, studies have found a significant increase in the risk of hand and shoulder repetitive-strain injuries when laboratory workers pipette for more than 300 hours per year. That works out to be an average of only two hours of pipetting per day. Many laboratory workers perform pipetting operations far more often than that.
Proper and consistent technique is crucial to achieving accuracy in pipetting. It is easy to make mistakes when fatigued, and it is difficult for a person to repeat the same action with great precision. Using robotics, test results with excellent accuracy and repeatability can be attained. Fatigue is no longer a problem.
According to an article in Rapid Microbiology, as much as half of all research funding in life sciences is used to repeat experiments. This is primarily caused by an inability to reproduce test results. This irreproducibility has, in turn, been caused by an incorrect execution in liquid-handling workflows.
Traceability means being able to trace something back to its source to verify every step of the production and distribution process. Among other things, it involves recording the step-by-step actions taken by a lab technician. The operator identity, technique, and a variety of additional data also need to be captured. Even with modern computers, this record-keeping can be burdensome. Pipetting robotic systems automate the gathering of much of the required data. As a result, the automated systems produce excellent traceability while significantly reducing manual data entry.
The COVID pandemic created a tremendous increase in the number of laboratory tests needed. The vast and sudden rise in testing volume stretched many labs to their capacity and beyond.
According to an article in GMC Genomics, sample preparation is the bottleneck of experiments for many research and clinical laboratories today. Many laboratories are considering automation to address this issue.
Case studies show that implementing pipetting robots results in an enormous increase in productivity. In one example, hands-on time was reduced from 2 hours 15 minutes to 20 minutes in handling a batch of eight test samples. That is a reduction of almost seven to one.
Most labs operate safely without robotics. Yet, implementing robotic pipetting adds another layer of safety. Lab technicians are more isolated from the samples when using robotics. Especially in the COVID era, extra safety is a good idea.
Types of liquid handling robotics
Automated solutions for liquid handling range from a low cost, handheld, battery-powered, one-channel smart pipetting device, to large, complex systems costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
At the low end, electronic pipettes are available that cover a volume range from 0.2 microliters to 10,000 microliters. The user has a choice of single channel and multi-channel models. Pipetting tasks include dilution, titration, and serial dispensing. Buttons and an LED display on the electronic pipette allows for user selection of volumes and tasks. A battery-powered pump inside the smart pipette draws in and dispenses the liquid with a touch of a button.
Modular robotic solutions are available that can use these electronic pipettes. A robot arm selects the smart pipette from a storage rack and uses it to perform a task. Such solutions can be put on a benchtop and configured in a modular way. The user can add racks, reservoirs, and other modules, depending on the task. The modular approach allows even laboratories with relatively small volumes to take advantage of automation in a cost-effective solution.
At the high end, complex systems for pipetting and liquid handling provide significant benefits and large volume capacity.
Additional equipment may be needed for your application. There are dozens of possible accessories to accommodate most test conditions or requirements. Here are some of the common auxiliary components used with liquid handling robots:
- Disposable tip heads
- Shaking station
- Temperature controller
- Barcode readers
Recommended maintenance procedures vary by vendor and the nature of the solution. As an example of a typical maintenance procedure, one such recommendation is to daily grease the flexible o-rings that create a seal when attaching the robot’s end-effector to disposable tips.
Helpful Tips in Making Your Decision
An article from July of 2021 in Global Market Insights indicates that a liquid handling system will run from USD 50,000 to USD 250,000. Such an amount is a significant investment deserving careful consideration.
Here are a few tips on how to approach the decision.
- Catalog the different pipetting applications in your lab. Consider which are the most important and which represent bottlenecks.
- Use this list in discussions with potential liquid handling system vendors. Ask them if they can automate each of these processes.
- Beware of hidden costs. Sometimes, the robotics part is cheap relative to the auxiliary systems that are needed.
- Look for ease of use. Is programming required, or other advanced technical skills? How user-friendly is the system? You can get help from impartial HowToRobot expert advisors.
- Read the reviews. Chances are, you will want to partner with a vendor that has other customers with processes similar to yours. They should have case studies or testimonials from such companies.
- Use the HowToRobot Investment Calculator to create an automation budget and check ROI on solutions.
- Take your time. Get quotes from different vendors. Contacting a number of vendors makes sense because you can get a better overview of what’s available.