The automation of analytical laboratories nowadays is still in its infancy. At the Center for Life Science Automation of the University of Rostock/Germany, new concepts are developed and executed to develop the laboratory of the future — the fully automated Future Lab.
A typical analytical laboratory located somewhere in Germany: reagent glasses and vessels with different liquids are processed by a team of laboratory technicians. It is weighed, pipetted, shaken, filtered and analyzed. Everything is manual. A factory located somewhere in Germany: Sheets which want to become a car, move on a conveyor belt. Robotic arms come from both sides and screw, paint, weld — until a finished car leaves the belt.
The difference could not be greater. Many industrial branches today are characterized by a very high degree of automation and full complete automation is realized. In contrast, life sciences laboratories are far behind this development. Although pipettors, vortexes, etc., facilitate the current work, a high amount of manual activities still remains. In particular, the transport between different processing stations always require human employment. Is there also a possibility of full automation for analytical laboratories? Can known strategies from the industrial automation simply be applied to analytical processes? Or have new concepts to be developed on the way to fully automated laboratory?
Scientists from the Center for Life Science Automation of the University of Rostock have dedicated their time to address these questions for six years and developed the Future Lab — the laboratory of the future.
Industry vs. Life Science
What reasons exist for the constantly low degree of automation in classical analytical laboratories versus the classical industrial automation? The number of samples to be processed increases either in the laboratory, so that automation could make an essential contribution to cost reduction and efficiency increase. If analytical processes are analyzed in more detail, it becomes clear, that these processes are very diverse with respect to the process steps as well as the employed labware. In contrast to classical industrial automation, processes do not run for long time periods in an identical way. Analytical laboratories rather face the task of being capable of processing the most diverse processes in a flexible manner. This increases significantly the requirements for the automation system to be developed.