Product Focus: Microplate Handlers

Critical Components of Lab Automation

Microplate handlers developed around the need to further automate liquid handling beyond its original function of dispensing fluids. “Integrating plate movement was a secondary feature,” says Eric Matthews, Midwest sales manager for BMG LABTECH (Chicago, IL). Today, robotics is central to integrating one or more devices with liquid handling.

Manufacturers have to some degree always taken a turnkey approach to designing automation systems, but today it is possible to design nearly any combination of components (handler, washer, reader) task-specifically or with built-in versatility.

This was due in no small part to the advent of inexpensive computing. “There was no true automation until PCs were capable of doing it,” Matthews says, comparing lab automation of 30 years ago to a drill press. “You’d put a plate into something, and it would do something to that place. There were no thermosensors, no scheduling, and everything required a lot of human intervention. If a plate was in the wrong spot or a pipettor wasn’t calibrated properly, users had to work it out themselves.”

Another innovation that changed plate handling was the availability of relatively inexpensive robots capable of fluid, three-axis movement and incorporating error detection and correction. “That ability, to move plates wherever you want, is a big deal,” Matthews says. “Like many other technologies, plate handling has followed Moore’s law.”

Spanning size, capabilities

Andreas Niewoehner, product manager for automated systems at PerkinElmer (Waltham, MA), breaks down the microplate automation market thus: small, benchtop systems; larger robotic systems; and full-scale, industrial robotic systems. For smaller systems, labs increasingly look for safe operation without the need for protection enclosures. “These are also easier to fit into tight lab space and integrate with other devices,” Niewoehner says.

Capabilities increase with size: Smaller systems may perform only one task, while larger automated workstations connect ten or more operations. “Users also expect a higher level of speed and robustness from these systems,” Niewoehner explains. “They were designed for production-like processes, such as pharmaceutical high-throughput screening, but are becoming popular in other industries.”

One problem with singleplate capacity plate handlers is that they create bottlenecks when one assay component is completed but the next one is not yet ready to accept the plate. An example might be a rapid agitation step followed by a ten-minute read. Employing two full-featured handlers or robots gets expensive. An alternative is “turntable” technologies that accept plates from the shaker. Turntables serve as workflow buffers, holding plates until the reader is ready. “The combination of articulated arm robotics and turntables can make a huge difference in terms of throughput,” Niewoehner notes.

Read more at Lab Manager Magazine

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