Laboratory automation has traditionally meant high-throughput, extremely flexible but difficult-to-program large liquid-handling robots. This type of robot worked extremely well for core facilities and high-throughput laboratories that could invest in personnel with computer programming and automation expertise. Using this kind of laboratory automation requires integrating liquid handlers with plate stackers, thermal cyclers, plate readers, and other instrumentation to create even larger and more complex integrated assortments of equipment. Such assemblies of instrumentation were able to produce high sample throughput and perform exceedingly complex tasks. Of course, the complexity of these instrument collections often resulted in programming difficulties, decreased reliability and the need for highly trained personnel that could troubleshoot the eclectic mix of instrumentation and software that had been constructed. Unfortunately, the cost of this type of automation in terms of dollars, personnel, and expertise meant that only the largest and most well funded laboratories could afford automation.
Today more labs are interested in the increased reproducibility and hands-on labor savings that automation can offer. The desire to incorporate affordable automation in a wider variety of laboratories has driven changes in the types of robotics being sold. As part of the effort toward making automation accessible to more labs, simplicity has become a driving force. In essence, there are significant hurdles to learning how to program and maintain automated liquid-handling robots and to retaining that experience once it is developed. For the most part, researchers want to use automation as a simple tool to perform the routine tasks associated with their research. This widespread desire for simplified robotics has driven instrumentation and chemistry companies to develop new robots and new ways of thinking about automation. We are now in the age of personal automation where smaller, lower-cost, easy-to-use robots are readily available from several suppliers. Many of these instruments are fairly specialized, automating only a limited set of tasks. Furthermore, a number of multifunctional, miniature-sized versions of larger liquid-handling robots are also showing up in the market. These robots tend to trade complexity and size in favor of lower cost and greater ease of use. And while the Personal Automation™ instruments may lack the flexibility and adaptability of their larger liquid-handling cousins, they make automation simple to operate and perform the functions that a lab is likely to use.
Dedicated Sample Processors
One style of Personal Automation™ Systems that is currently on the market is the dedicated sample processor exemplified by the Maxwell® 16 Instrument from Promega, the BioRobot EZ1, EZ1 Advanced, and QIAcube Workstations from Qiagen, the iPrep™ Purification Instrument from Invitrogen, and the KingFisher® series of instruments from Thermo Fisher. These are not liquid-handling robots in the traditional sense; they are not intended to provide high-precision pipetting of low volumes of reagents. Rather, these instruments have been designed to provide easy-to-use protocols for nucleic acid and protein purification. All offer a range of predeveloped purification protocols that can be either purchased or downloaded free of charge. Operation of these robots is extremely simple, and processing samples can be accomplished by pressing only a few buttons. Because they are intended to be easy to use, the robots do not require a separate computer. Messages on the instrument’s LCD screen guide the user through selecting methods, setting up the instrument and processing of chemistries.
Each robot listed above can accommodate a range of sample numbers (see Table 1), allowing the user to process a small number of samples in a short period of time. Typical processing times vary between 20 minutes and 1.5 hours, depending on the instrument and method used. With the exception of the KingFisher® series of instruments and the QIAcube®, a variety of purification chemistries are available conveniently prepared in prefilled, sealed cartridges. User customization of processing parameters such as input sample volume and elution volume is also available on these instruments. Some even allow researchers to either create their own purification protocols (e.g., the KingFisher® instruments) or make changes to the timing of steps in existing methods (e.g., the Maxwell® 16 Instrument with the new Flexi Method Firmware). The goal is to efficiently perform a subset of the popular purification processes used in any lab in a simple, push-button manner. Essentially, these machines are tools that let researchers focus on their research while the automated instrument handles the routine task of sample purification. With the convenience of prefilled cartridges and the ability to process a small number of samples, these robots are an easy first step into automation for laboratories that have traditionally processed all of their samples manually.
Table 1. Comparison of Several Personal Automation Systems Currently on the Market.
Compact Automated Liquid Handlers
When labs are looking to automate processing of larger numbers of samples or want to incorporate pipetting into their automation, they will need to consider moving to an automated liquid handler. As personal automation has become more popular, several companies are offering compact, lower-cost, multifunctional liquid handlers. Some of the notable offerings in this category are the epMotion® line of instruments from Eppendorf, the Biomek® 3000 Laboratory Automation Workstation from Beckman Coulter, the Freedom EVO® 75 from Tecan, the MicroLab® NIMBUS from Hamilton Robotics, and the Zephyr® Compact Liquid Handling Workstation from Caliper Life Sciences (Table 2).
Table 2. Comparison of Several Personal Automation™ Systems Currently on the Market.
These systems maintain a focus on flexible liquid handling to cover the range of pipetting tasks that could be automated in any lab, and allow sample processing in 96- and 384-well plates. Processes as varied as nucleic acid or protein purifications, enzyme reaction setups, quantitation, normalization, cell-based/biochemical assays and many more can be performed on these instruments. Typically, the automated method development software associated with these machines still requires a significant amount of programming and automation experience to create new methods. The Eppendorf epMotion® system is among the easiest to use featuring a simplified programming interface and can be run from a small control panel attached to the instrument (i.e., does not require an attached computer). While the programming interface on the epMotion® system is simple to use, it is also somewhat limited in flexibility. For users desiring more flexibility, a separate computer-driven software development environment is available from Eppendorf that expands the programming capabilities of the instrument. The Beckman Coulter, Tecan, Hamilton, and Caliper systems offer much more flexibility in the automated method programming software where the programming interface is the same as for their larger liquid handlers. However, with the increased flexibility engendered in these systems, there is also a greater degree of difficulty in learning how to develop new methods. Those researchers willing to take on the task of learning how to develop methods on any of these systems can use those abilities to automate a large portion of their laboratory processes.
Advantages of Personal Automation
The new batch of compact, affordable liquid handlers still requires some level of software training to become competent at writing new methods. As such, these systems can be more difficult to use and maintain and tend to require an “automation expert” in the lab. Right now, we are starting to see a shift in the paradigm for how a user should interact with an automated liquid handler. One example of this is the Eppendorf epMotion® line of instruments. Eppendorf has adopted a simplified user interface to make their robots more approachable and easier to use. This shift toward simplicity has limited some of the programming complexity that can be accomplished on this platform but has maintained much of the flexibility and capability to accomplish diverse sets of liquid handling tasks. Another company that has started to address the usability of their robots is Caliper. They have recently developed a simplified interface for working with their Zephyr® system with the release of the Zephyr® SPE Workstation. This workstation uses the standard Zephyr® instrument for processing of Solid Phase Extraction (SPE) samples but has an intuitive interface specific to the SPE customer base that allows development of custom methods without having to learn programming in a complicated development environment.
Development of simplified user interfaces specific to a customer’s field of research represents a level of personalization that can and should be applied more liberally to the large and small liquid handlers on the market. This type of user interface could be programmed in many ways, offering anything from a simplified approach to operating the instrument to an alternative environment for easier method development. The goal: the researcher never needs to learn more traditional robotic programming. This becomes important on many levels. For many users, even opening methods in the traditional robotic software environment, can be daunting and may discourage them from using the instrument. Providing a separate user interface to start methods and provide input makes the entire process of running robotic methods friendlier, easier to understand, and takes on a push-button mentality. Such a simplified approach for running methods and entering user inputs would be a giant stride forward in making automated liquid handling accessible to researchers who have no intention of becoming automation experts. One might argue that this type of user interface limits the capabilities of a system. However, the power of this approach is that, not only would it simplify automation of the most common processes in a user’s lab, but the development environment could still be used to create new and flexible methods if the user so chooses. One can also argue that the vast flexibility possible with automated liquid handlers is excessive for most labs who really only want to automate the processes common to their own research. In the end, providing a more constricted but simpler approach to interacting with automation really gives researchers the best of both worlds combining ease of use for everyday tasks with the capabilities for flexibility when and if the need arises.
Looking to the Future of Automation
The appearance of new Personal Automation™ options reflects the evolution that has and will continue to take place in laboratory automation. While there is still a place for the larger high-throughput liquid-handling systems in biological laboratories, more labs are considering the adoption of smaller and simpler robotics in this new age of personal automation. By combining moderate throughput, a defined range of applications, simplified user controls, predeveloped methods and prefilled cartridges, dedicated sample processors are finding a home in many laboratories. Such instruments fit well into labs that require moderate sample throughput as well as larger labs desiring smaller scale robotics for individual researchers. Overall these instruments provide robust and reproducible genomics and proteomics purifications at a reasonable cost.
Compact liquid handlers retain the flexibility of their bigger cousins offering labs a more cost-effective entry into medium- to high-throughput sample processing. Their flexibility generally comes at the cost of learning an automation software development environment; however, this flexibility allows a much wider range of laboratory applications to be automated than the dedicated sample processors. A new trend in compact liquid handlers is to bridge the complexity gap between the dedicated sample processors and the compact liquid handlers by combining a simplified graphical user interface for a majority of standard laboratory tasks with the capabilities of a rich development environment for more complex automation solutions. This trend is attractive to customers and should drive increased development of this type of system in the future.
Laboratory robotics will continue to respond and adapt to customer needs as more and more labs adopt Personal Automation™ systems that allow researchers to focus on science and analysis while letting their robotic assistants perform more routine tasks.