A Modular Design Approach to Lab Automation: Go Small to Go Big
Problem solving is best performed when you break it down to its basic and most simplistic parts. When you begin with solving at this level, you have the capacity to build whole systems solutions. Finite element analysis works in this very way: zoom into the smallest mesh size, where there’s measurable incremental change, and scale-up. You will find yourself with solutions to complex engineering problems as focusing on the simplest parts will lead you closest to one equation, one unknown.
Lab automation can be developed in a much similar fashion. The first steps involved are proving out the process by testing in small increments with a simple benchtop system. From here, you move on to performing either a function or a single step in your process, learning all necessary details regarding how that feature behaves in order to perfect it. Finally, you scale it up to a top level.
Process Development/Research in the Lab
The key benefit of the process development stage that is it allows room for process and hardware flexibility at the benchtop level. For example, if you’re moving coarse-shaped material like salt or smooth material like a PCR bead, you can test out vacuum chuck holders, find out which one works best with any of the materials you’re handling, and potentially select one chuck that can also handle sample tubes. You will want to determine your speeds, acceleration, and deceleration on a 3-axis test bed before you port it into the machine. Whether your operation is pick-and-place or filling sample vials, the simple benchtop setup will make understanding your process variables much clearer.
It is wise, and certainly not uncommon, to always keep a bench setup (possibly multiple), and you may perhaps consider one that exclusively fills sample vials. This could prove to be the best tool in your shed, allowing you to keep your brain trust focused on testing/research and out of the business of mindless, repetitious tasks.
This form of building-up Lab Automation also introduces the researcher to the possibilities in leveraging automation. The knowledge that any lab operation can be ported over to automation to make processes faster, simpler, repeatable and easily documented enables researchers to see how dispensing fluids can be performed consistently, repeatably and with a level of resolution that previously only a seasoned expert could manually create with a pipette. From a lab process development standpoint, this approach allows scientists to pick and choose features needed for testing. They can swap out features and select software modules to perform special tasks. Also, new modules can be developed/added at-will, (by following the same development/design guidelines) and effectively dropped into position. This will make your lab automation infinitely configurable to adapt to your growing company and evolving research goals and objectives.
At the module level during development, one engineer can be responsible for working out all details such as choosing the appropriate sensors for the tasks, selecting actuators that achieve all the functionality required, and proving the module out. This not only safeguards the integrity of the process, but it makes development efficient, rigorous and dynamic, without creating a backlog for people attempting to access the machine. Design can happen in parallel—your optical station can be developed independent of your dispensing. This will keep the engineers focused on their discreet, specific problems and enable them to execute speedy solutions without interruption, interference or delay.
Software can also be developed on a module/sub-routine basis and fully formed on the benchtop unit with all the hooks/levers required to integrate into the master program. This allows multiple software engineers the ability to program simultaneously while integration into the main program is simplified as a result of all functionality of the modularized variables being proven. One engineer can be designated the system integrator, controlling all top-level requirements simultaneously. This effort is made focused and efficient due the confidence and expertise developed at the modular level.
Complex operations can be tested out by employing exotic solutions (heaters, chillers, robotic manipulators, micro pumps, etc.) on the modular fly. Such operations can include R&D, tackled at a base level, where the problem may be deemed too risky to the integrity of the whole or deemed a clear success independent of the whole. Testing can occur during these operations without interrupting or affecting the top-level system. Once again, proven integration can be activated in process and implemented seamlessly into the system.
All in all, lab automation can be developed within this modular approach to optimize each step of the process development in the lab as well as the hardware development on the ground. Proving out the process by testing in small increments with a simple benchtop system and learning how those features behave enables you to build a solid systems base. Your final step of scaling it up to a top level or integrated lab automation solution ultimately produces a system welded with integrity and efficiency.