I, (Lab) Robot

14 April 2014| by Bill Hinchen

No one wants to spend hours endlessly pipetting solutions into Eppendorf tubes as part of their immunohistochemistry work, filling numerous 96-well plates for cell culture or loading lane after lane in a gel tank. It’s tedious and can quite often lead to errors.

How many times have you added the wrong volume, or forgot to add a reagent to a mix altogether? More than once if you’ve spent any length of time in the lab. Highly repetitive work will always be subject to human error, and when you need your results to be highly accurate as well as precise, this becomes a major problem.


From elephants to arms

Thankfully, since Rod Markin developed one the world’s first automated lab management systems in 1993, laboratory automation has come along in leaps and bounds (quite literally, as you'll see below). Laboratory robotics have taken centre stage within this arena and companies like Festo have been pushing the boundaries of what has been considered possible.

Festo, the privately owned German company, has become one of the world leaders in automation, providing labs with intelligent complexity layered beneath simple and efficient designs in order to improve productivity. Their elephant trunk-influenced robotic arm, featured in New Scientist this March, is a proof-of-concept from 2010 and demonstrates how a robot is capable of learning, through trial and error, and subsequently 'remembering' newly acquired positions. Following this learning process it can repeat actions upon command. The robot could easily be described as having muscle memory!

Their ingenuity isn’t limited to laboratory or industrial robotics however. Festo’s Bionic Learning Network has recently shown off the results from two years of work spent creating a robotic kangaroo, capable of mimicking the biomechanics of the animal’s jumping behaviour as closely as possible. The key was to replicate how the Achilles tendon works in nature, i.e. to cushion the impact of a jump while simultaneously absorbing the kinetic energy and releasing this for the next jump. Through a combination of an Achilles-like tendon made from rubber, pneumatics and electric drive technology, Festo has created a highly dynamic robotic system. 


Bounding into the future

The ability to automate repetitive tasks and ultimately reduce the generation of inaccurate data sets are just some of the goals of lab automation. The technology now exists for us to automate everything from the multiple stages of a workflow or process within a pharmaceutical R&D lab, through to the daily pipetting regimen of an average bench scientist. It’s now up to us to take advantage of this, and free up scientists so that they can spend more time thinking, analysing and coming up with new research ideas (something machines aren't quite so good at, at least, not yet!).

Beyond robotic arms and kangaroos of varying complexities, the world of lab automation is sprinting into the future, and catapulting the rest of us with it, into an era where automation makes monotonous tasks and the introduction of human error an outdated notion. On the back of these phenomenal technological advances will come data that is more robust, and products that are more reliable.

If you're interested in learning more, the Robotics & Automation 2014 meeting (hosted by ELRIG) will be held in Northampton (at the Festo facility) this July, and will be well worth attending. Hopefully we'll see you there!