A Guide to Modular Laboratory Automation: How to Get Started
Even before the pandemic, overall testing volumes in the United States at life science laboratories increased 5 to 10 percent per year, propelled by an aging population. Meanwhile, the availability of qualified lab technicians has not kept pace. Then the pandemic drove a spectacular increase in testing volumes and, as in many realms, accelerated the need for increased productivity.
Laboratory automation has evolved since the 1950s, starting with automated instruments that could analyze 20 samples simultaneously. During the 1970s, communications between such devices began to be implemented, capturing data electronically and replacing paper record keeping. It was not until 2014 that the first laboratory achieved total automation. In 2022, Total Laboratory Automation (TLA) is still quite expensive, usually costing millions of dollars.
However, new developments in modular equipment mean even small laboratories can access the benefits of automation. TLA need not be the immediate objective. Laboratories of all sizes can now quickly achieve many benefits of robotic laboratory automation.
Until the last five years or so, most processes in the laboratory were considered unsuitable for automation. The complexity and diversity of tasks in the laboratory environment made automation difficult. The return on investment was doubtful.
Over the last half-decade, the rise of smaller, more flexible, and cost-effective collaborative robot arms (“cobots”) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) has changed the picture. The collaborative features of cobots make them safe to use around people. And cobots can be mounted on AMRs so the robot can travel from one machine to another, between rooms, or across an entire facility.
How Are Robots Utilized in Laboratories?
Most labs have automated or semi-automatic equipment for testing samples. Technicians or scientists must tend the machines by first preparing samples. Specimens must be loaded into the equipment and removed after the test is complete.
To reduce labor requirements and increase productivity, the most common use for robotics in laboratories is machine tending or pick and place. For many machine-tending processes, a simple Cartesian robot might be sufficient. However, a six-axis articulated robot arm is the best choice for maximum flexibility. The reason is that sometimes an extra operation may be required in addition to a simple pick and place. A test tube may need to be gently swirled about to ensure the uniformity of a chemical reaction. A small canister containing powders or liquids may need to be shaken to obtain an even mixture. The lid of a small bottle may need to be removed or applied.
With an articulated arm, a robot can precisely perform these operations and mimic almost any function a human hand might make. Depending on the application, more than one End of Arm Tooling (EoAT) may be needed. Many robots can automatically swap out one gripper for another.
Robot-Centered versus Process-Centered Automation
With modular laboratory automation, two basic approaches can be taken.
One geometry involves a cluster of instruments gathered around a central robot arm. The robot, usually a fairly large one so that it has a long reach, can take samples from one device and transfer them to another. In this way, a specimen can be put through a series of processes. The robot loads and unloads the sample from each machine in turn.
The advantages of this robot-centered approach include the efficient use of space and a high degree of cost-effectiveness. One robot arm is used with multiple pieces of test equipment, so its utilization is high.
However, a drawback to this approach is that when the requirements change and different pieces of equipment are needed, it can be time-consuming to change the configuration and re-program the robot.
An alternative approach is to use a process-centered geometry. This method arranges the various pieces of test or sample preparation equipment linearly. A robot arm is associated with each piece of equipment for machine tending. A conveyor system carries samples from one station to the next. The robot arm takes samples from the conveyor, places them into the test apparatus, waits for the process to complete, and then removes the specimen and puts it back on the conveyor. The next robot down the line takes the samples and puts them into the next machine.
The advantages of the process-centered approach include maximum flexibility and ease of reconfiguration. And the conveyor belt could be replaced with an AMR. The mobile robot might shuttle the samples from one room to another if needed.
An articulated robot arm can be mounted on the AMR, enabling it to pick up samples, load them into an onboard tray, travel to its target location, and perform the offloading at the destination. The combination of an articulated arm and AMR is often called an Autonomous Mobile Manipulator.
Other Types of Robots
For operations that involve large volumes, it may make sense to consider other kinds of robots to perform some procedures. SCARA robots, because of their unique form factor, may be particularly well suited for screwing off lids of containers or applying stoppers on test tubes. Delta-style robots are exceptionally fast and ideally well-suited for high-speed pick and place, sorting, and labeling operations.
For transporting large, heavy tanks of liquids or industrial-sized drums of solids within the facility, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) may be the best choice.
Benefits of Modular Laboratory Robotic Automation
The benefits of modern, modular laboratory automation are both quantitative and qualitative. The return on investment can and should be carefully estimated for quantitative cost-effectiveness measurement.
Other benefits may be even more critical than the labor-saving aspects of the ROI:
- Reproducibility improvements – Tests can be compromised by human handling in various ways. Apart from human oils or particulate matter, it’s difficult for humans to perform an operation precisely the same way over hundreds or thousands of repetitions. Robots can do this reliably and with no fear of contamination.
- 24/7 Operation – Robots can operate over the weekend and at night, increasing the operational throughput.
- Reduction of timelines – In developing new products, the time from the “bench to the bed” can be dramatically diminished by using automation. Testing can be performed faster, and more tests can be done than using manual methods.
- Reduction of errors – Mislabeling, mistakes in reagent quantities, and other forms of human error are minimized by using robotic automation.
- Quality improvements – When the results of a test determine medical interventions like surgery or radiation treatment, improving the quality of testing can save lives and reduce the risk of lawsuits.
- Maximize Use of Brainpower –Relieving skilled personnel from mundane tasks means they are free to pursue higher-value activities involving innovation.
- Safety – When tests involve harmful chemicals, robots keep people safer. Repetitive motion injuries are avoided.
- Saved materials – The higher precision of robotic processes means less waste.
Drawbacks and Challenges
No matter how flexible an automation system may be, manual methods are still the most adaptable and elastic. Be careful not to become locked into an automation system that forces you to do things according to its requirements.
Your process should determine the automation, not the other way around. Beware of vendors who simply want to sell machines.
Training people on how to use the automation system represents an investment in time. This factor must be included in the evaluation of the benefits of an automation solution. Automation systems that require proprietary programming methods are less attractive than systems that can handle a variety of popular languages.
How to Start
Look for processes that represent an easy win. Automate the easy, less costly tasks first. With modern, modular automation, jumping in and trying to achieve Total Laboratory Automation in one fell swoop is unnecessary. A better approach is step-by-step. Starting with a single instrument and a single robot can validate the benefits and provide the basis for going further.
An example helps to illustrate the point. A company had a process that required containers of waste fluid to be emptied after hours or on weekends. The containers couldn’t be removed during worktime because it would stop the ongoing operation of the equipment. An employee had to come in on weekends to remove and empty the containers. Employing a robot to do this task saved the company from having an employee coming in over the weekend indefinitely. It was an easy win.
Choose automation that gives you the ability to link processes in the future. Open communication architecture is almost always preferable to proprietary methods.
Recent developments in modular automation make the benefits of robotics available to even small laboratories. Labs can start small and simple and build their way up to larger and more complex applications as they gain experience and confidence.