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Analytica 2024: Automating the Modern Lab

Analytica 2024: Automating the Modern Lab
From robots that completely take over routine processes, such as pipetting, to the use of cobots alongside human technicians, automation withing the lab is increasing. (Credit: iStock)

The move towards the use of robots and more automation within the lab was a lively topic of discussion throughout Analytica 2024 in Munich. From robots that completely take over routine processes, such as pipetting, to the use of cobots alongside human technicians, automation is increasing.

Susanne Grödl, Deputy Exhibition Director of Analytica, said automating and digitalizing the modern laboratory was not about replacing individual equipment, software updates or new programs, but was about a fundamental change. She observed:

“This is a huge challenge that is all the easier to master the closer equipment manufacturers, software developers and users cooperate, and the better the transfer from research into practice succeeds.”

Flexible Integration

Automation is a solution to dealing with hazardous substances, pathogenic germs and harmful chemicals, as well as keeping manual sample contact to a minimum to avoid contamination. It also frees up time for lab technicians when routine tasks can be taken over by robots.

Visitors were able to visit a special show entitled Digital Transformation within Analytica. One of its highlights was the autonomous, mobile laboratory robot KEVIN, developed at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) and now being prepared for series production by the United Robotics Group

Thomas Bauernhansl, Director of the Fraunhofer IPA, said:

“Automation plays an important role in the life science sector. It enables laboratories to respond flexibly to different requirements.”

(Credit:  Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation)
(Credit: Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation)
(Credit: Eppendorf)
(Credit: Eppendorf)
(Credit: Eppendorf)
(Credit: Eppendorf)

Designed to take over routine tasks, KEVIN be flexibly and intuitively integrated into laboratory infrastructures. Using a robotic arm mounted on a mobile platform, it is equipped with a camera, an image processing program and a learning algorithm. 

It can transport samples and supply systems with reagents, pipette tips and other items, allowing staff to focus on value-added activities.

Benefits of Lab Automation

Dr. Jessica Wagener, an Application Specialist focusing on automated liquid handling at Eppendorf SE, looked at the benefits and challenges of automation. Hamburg-based Eppendorf SE produces automated liquid handling systems, including the epMotion, and so she focused in on automated pipette systems.

Despite the growing number of new technologies and automated instruments, routine liquid handling is still a manual process in many labs, she suggested. She asked:

“Why do you automate something in the lab?

The advantages of automation are increased throughput, accuracy and precision, fewer errors, reproducibility and standardization, data integrity and documentation, sample and user protection. With sample throughput—the higher the throughput, the more benefit you get from automation of workflows.

Then, time investment—a pipetting robot is not necessarily quicker than a very skilled lab technician using a multi-channel pipette, but you have less time investment in the sense that you have increased walk-away time.

You can program the robot, establish your protocol and then leave the robot and do other tasks.”

(Credit: Eppendorf)
(Credit: Eppendorf)

She continued:

“We also talk about reproducibility when it comes to automation. 

When you do everything manually—when you do very tedious, repetitive pipetting work every day—there is a time where you just cannot be so concentrated and your work is not so focused anymore.”

Higher Precision

Dr. Wagener outlined some of the capabilities and possible applications for an automated pipetting system. She said:

“When we look at pipetting in very small volumes, you may have transparent liquids with very small droplets of volume, transparent pipetting tips and transparent tubes to pipette into.

Everything may not be very clear to see so here again you could benefit from a robot that you can programme.

You have a lot of different liquid types to deal with in the lab and with an automated system you have the benefit that you can adjust the pipetting parameters to the type of liquid that you just used.

When you look at the sources of pipetting errors, around 70% are caused by the operator holding the pipette in their hand but the human factors are not there when you have an automated system.”

Concerns and Challenges

Dr. Wagener also highlighted the concerns that lab operators and staff might have with automation. She explained:

“These include the fact it is complex and there can be a major learning curve with the software and hardware of these robots. You might also experience software bugs.

Then, when you go from a manual process to an automated workflow, the transition is not always smooth—you have to adjust some factors, establish the protocol and test then test it before you can transfer to the automated workflow.”

(Credit: Eppendorf)
(Credit: Eppendorf)

She concluded:

“In addition, we all know lab space is precious and liquid handling robots can be very big so you always have to consider that too.”

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