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Lending an Automated Helping Hand

Thu, 02/06/2014 - 2:29pm
Lindsay Hock, Managing Editor

The value of laboratory automation solutions is proven, and these technologies are improving a variety of common research laboratory tools.

Mettler Toledo’s InMotion autosampler is a flexible and efficient automated sample changer for titrators, density meters and refractometers. Image: Mettler ToledoLaboratory automation techniques are commonplace, as they improve the accuracy and repeatability of laboratory operations, reduce human error in these operations and reduce cost of these operations. Defined as the use of technology to streamline or substitute manual manipulation of equipment and processes, laboratory automation offers solutions for enhancing workflows in various research laboratory environments. The techniques are finding applications in laboratory tasks ranging from capping and de-capping of sample bottles to high-throughput screening of test samples. And, according to recent data from Research and Markets, the global market for laboratory automation solutions was valued at $3.1 billion in 2012 and is poised to reach $4.2 billion by 2017, with the strongest markets in life sciences and academia.

An automated hand with sample preparation
Manual sample preparation can often be inefficient, complex and time consuming, leading to increased training requirements, preparation time, procedural errors and operational costs. Today, many companies, such as Gilson, Integra Biosciences and Hamilton Robotics, are looking to reduce the time, error and cost in manual efforts by manufacturing automated liquid handling platforms and sample preparation solutions.

Often done incorrectly, pipetting can be tedious, complex and error prone, leading to variability, repeat experiments and poor results. Launched in August 2013, Gilson’s PIPETMAX, an easy-to-use automated liquid handling platform, is a solution to the inconsistencies caused by manual pipetting and sample preparation. Based on Middleton, Wis.-based Gilson’s PIPETMAN pipettor, the platform performs applications targeted to life sciences laboratory applications. The platform features a small footprint that can fit easily on a laboratory bench or in a fume hood, and weighs less than 40 lbs for easy laboratory-to-laboratory or bench-to-bench transfer. Also featuring pre-configured or customizable protocols, the platform allows users to select their desired protocol, edit variables, set up trays and run the targeted operations from a tablet. Hardware for the platform can be customized to a user’s needs and pipetting heads can be calibrated like a PIPETMAN pipettor.

Handheld pipetting requires practice to achieve steady reproducible pipetting results. Oftentimes, laboratories don’t have time for training their personnel as many samples are going through their doors on a daily basis. Integra Biosciences AG, Switzerland, has recently introduced the VIAFLO ASSIST, an innovative device that, in combination with a VIAFLO II electronic handheld pipette, enables the pipette’s protocols to be performed automatically. The automated instrument keeps the need for traditional handheld pipetting to a minimum, relieving laboratory personnel from activities that may cause repetitive stress injuries or time-consuming training.

Typical parameters influencing performance of pipetting are tip immersion depth and pipetting angle. The automated pipetting capability of VIAFLO ASSIST ensures these parameters are consistent, resulting in increased reproducibility and better results. To operate the instrument, users simply mount a VIAFLO II electronic pipette onto the pipette adapter, choose a protocol and press the run button. The instrument will then obtain the protocol via Bluetooth from the VIAFLO II electronic pipette and automatically execute it.

Hamilton Robotics, Reno, Nev., also manufactures automation platforms to aid in sample preparation and liquid handling laboratory tasks. Their recently introduced VANTAGE is a flexible, multi-purpose pipetting platform that features an enhanced linear motor design and contact-free NanoPulse pipetting technology covering a volume range from 100 nL to 1 mL. The platform features a space-saving, expandable design that can meet various laboratory environment’s growing needs.

Laboratories requiring increased walk-away time, high throughputs or large capacities are able to upgrade their benchtop VANTAGE pipettor with a Logistics Cabinet, which offers tip and plate shuttling from below the pipetting deck and customizable, smart waste solutions. A telescopic, vertical Track Gripper can also be added to the platform for the transport of samples from below- or off-deck third-party devices. The system provides simple assay programming and detailed 3-D simulations and works with INSTINCT V, a dynamic scheduler optimized for short runtimes. INSTINCT V also provides remote system monitoring via smartphones, tablets or any Web-enabled device, increasing walk-away time for overnight and weekend runs.

Dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) is a solvent widely used for storage and transfer of small-molecular compounds during high-throughput screening campaigns in drug discovery. Because of its unique physical properties, DMSO behaves differently than water when handled by air-displacement pipettors and acoustic droplet ejectors. Artel, Westbrook, Maine, has recently introduced two new reagent solutions that expand the volume range measureable with the company’s line of DMSO products. For use with the company’s MVS Multichannel Verification System and Liquid Handler Performance Verification Service, the reagents enable users to accurately calibrate and verify their liquid handlers when dispensing DMSO-based solutions. The MVS is an easy-to-use, universal system that verifies the volume-transfer performance of automated liquid handling systems and multi-channel handheld pipettes. It consists of equipment, software, sample solutions and highly characterized microtiter plates.

BioTek’s BioStack 4 microplate stacker helps make a simple laboratory task even simpler with its automated functionality. Image: BioTekAn automated way to add sample
Autosamplers are another type of laboratory instrumentation used to automatically introduce a sample into gas or liquid chromatographs, titrators, density meters and refractometers for testing. Mettler Toledo, Columbus, Ohio, recently introduced the InMotion autosampler, a flexible and efficient automated sample changer for titrators, density meters and refractometers. Designed for maximum throughput without sacrificing space, the autosamplers improve the productivity of various laboratory tasks. The Flex and Pro series are 42 cm wide, and the Max series can handle more than 300 samples on a 57-cm-wide sample rack.

InMotion autosamplers perform a variety of testing, cleaning and conditioning processes. Users can eliminate sample carry over with the PowerShower rinse system. Subsequent simultaneous titrations can be performed with the T90 Excellence titrator and a second tower for enhanced efficiency. LED status lights on the top of the tower allow for quick status confirmation from across a laboratory. In addition to automatically adding and removing reagents with a wide range of pumps and functions, the autosampler offers tailoring to sample processing. The CoverUp protects operators from volatile solvents and reagents, and waterbath racks temperate the sample rack.

Making simple tasks, simpler
Even simple laboratory tasks such as capping and de-capping bottles and de-lidding and re-lidding plates, as well as plate stacking, can be strenuous to laboratory personnel. When done for long periods of time manually, the actions can also cause stress and injury to personnel. For routine microplate-based processes including cell-based assays and applications requiring automated plate de-lidding and re-lidding, BioTek, Winooski, Vt., has recently introduced the BioStack 4 microplate stacker. Providing walk-away automation, BioStack 4’s plate carrier provides fast plate exchange speeds of less than 10 sec to increase throughput and enhance productivity. The microplate stacker is compatible with 24- to 1,536-well lidded and low-volume microplates up to 22 mm high, and interchangeable 10-, 30- or 50-plate stacks are available for individual throughput needs. The small footprint allows operation within a biosafety enclosure or fume hood, and conserves valuable bench space. An optional barcode scanner increases workflow efficiency, while limiting potential user errors. The microplate stacker is controlled via the instrument’s interface, Liquid Handling Control software or Gen5 data analysis software.

For everyday capping and de-capping of bottles, Dispense Works, McHenry, Ill., has introduced the Ring Dex filling and capping system. Compact to save bench space, the system features a true file-based control system requiring no PC for operation. Setup of fill volumes, capping torques and check weights is done with pre-programmed graphical interface screens. Production dates for each container are time and date stamped with each container’s fill weight. The history file may be uploaded for documentation and reporting requirements. The system also features an on-board calibration routine.

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