Automation challenges with equipment are not easily solved – often, the sheer size of a robotic instrument prevents it from being considered useful for a medical laboratory. To offer automation within a small footprint, Peak Analysis and Automation (PAA), an international organization with headquarters in the United Kingdom and a United States subsidiary in Colorado, has designed the S-LAB automated plate handler.
“Many laboratories, needing to upscale their workflow, have found laboratory automation a costly and difficult option,’’ says Malcolm Crook, technical director at PAA. “The S-LAB eliminates the need for costly hardware and software, providing a reliable plug-and-play solution for single instrument loading. S-LAB is an entry- level automation solution designed for easy installation and use.”
Small size, vast delivery
One issue Crook and his team at PAA tried to solve with the S-LAB was designing an automated solution that can be used safely on a standard laboratory bench or fit in a safety cabinet.
At 595mm x 540mm x 648mm (23.4" x 21.3" x 25.5"), the unit handles up to 100 standard, unlidded microplates. Average plate exchange time is 30 seconds and the unit is compatible with up to 300 different laboratory instruments.
Setup is via a web-based application that can be run from a handheld device. The controller and software are embedded within the plate handler, so connection to a separate computer is not required. S-LAB is supplied with pre-taught positions, so only the instrument position needs to be taught, simplifying installation.
“Lack of space is often a problem when it comes to lab automation,” Crook says. “With its small footprint it can easily fit a standard laboratory bench or safety cabinet.”
How it works
The automated plate handler can load single instruments such as plate washers, bulk reagent dispensers, and plate readers.
The unit handles microplates, which have become a standard tool in analytical research and clinical diagnostic testing laboratories. They are frequently used in enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays, which are the basis of most modern medical diagnostic tests. A microplate has several sample wells in a 2:3 rectangular matrix. Each microplate holds liquid that is used for life science research.
Key components in the device are plastic pieces manufactured by igus, a Germany-based manufacturer of motion plastics. The components are lubrication- and maintenance-free.
“igus was willing to work with PAA to produce a sub-assembly that was ideal for this product,” Crook says. “I think what really makes it unique is a combination of reliability, price point, ease-of-use, and small footprint.”
A ZLW sub-assembly acts as a base and slider for the plate handler. Made with igus’ DryLin products, the subassembly is quiet and wear- and corrosion-resistant. DryLin products also resist dirt, dust, and humidity, and are suited to short-stroke applications.
The unit also includes a rotation bearing, the igus Robolink, and an igus energy chain that protects cables in the cable trays. igus energy chain applications range from lightweight robotics to industrial-strength used in cranes and draw bridges.
“An extra benefit of using igus low-cost automation is that all the moving elements are lubrication-free, which means that the equipment does not need maintenance,” Crook says. “Without lubricated parts, it does not attract dust or dirt, making it easy to keep clean.
“There were several challenges in this design,’’ Crook adds. “We wanted to design it to a low price point. Also, PAA had not used low-volume injection molding before. Shaking out the final failure modes from the complete device was another design challenge.”
Automation in medical instruments
While automation in medical laboratories is growing, manual systems are still widely used. After samples are captured, they are then placed in batches, carried by employees to analysis stations and sometimes re-sorted for further analysis. The process is laborious, but more importantly, prone to errors. More time is required to troubleshoot problems, and some samples require special handling to pass through several stations for step-wise diagnostics. Automated solutions, such as the plate handler, increase efficiency and help reduce the risk of human error.
Peak Analysis and Automation