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Microscopy & Automation

The Long Way from Motorization to True Automation

05/26/2017 | Author / Editor: Horst Wolff* / Dr. Ilka Ottleben

It is a long way from motorization to true automation in imaging.
It is a long way from motorization to true automation in imaging. (Picture: Zeiss)

Rapid developments at all levels of microscopy, such as contrast, illumination, resolution, signal detection and data processing have occurred over the last decades and there is reason to expect that these advances will continue. However, severe limitations in accuracy, reproducibility and throughput are caused by the involvement of humans in all steps of the imaging workflow. It also poses a significant burden and workload for the researcher. To improve this situation is the biggest challenge in automation.

To limit human labor to the areas where it is really useful and adds value is the biggest challenge in automation. Limited human resources and human error cannot only be problematic in clinical and diagnostic workflows, but do also pose problems in research environments, which automation can help to resolve.

What does automation mean? Are all fully motorized microscopes of today also automated imaging systems? This article attempts an approach to what automation in imaging really means. It is more than just motorization and enhanced throughput.

A well-known situation also in your lab?

You may need the results either for your lab meeting, as the group leader is putting pressure on you to eventually generate valuable results. Or it is an integral part of a scheduled talk on a conference, or of a manuscript or grant application, that has to be submitted soon. Almost all researchers know these issues. Although the situation has improved over the past few years (e.g. with today´s state- of-the-art multi-position imaging, compared to single position-experiments 10 or more years ago), the demands, expectations and standards for publications have risen even more during the same period.

What can be the solution to this and similar problems? Sleeping next to the microscope, to supervise and adjust the imaging? More motorization, or faster imaging methods to capture even more objects of interest? Or rather intelligent automation that does not just generate huge amounts of data, but exactly the data you need?

Why automation in microscopy?

Biological microscopy and light microscopy in particular, is an essential tool of modern molecular, cell and developmental biology laboratories. It spans applications in basic research, preclinical and even clinical do- mains. Microscopic applications in imaging are constantly growing and enable insights that are impossible without microscopic imaging. Recent additions to the biologists´ toolbox like CRISPR/Cas9 and related methods, will continue to drive new discoveries. Rapid developments at all levels of microscopy, contrast, illumination, resolution, signal detection and data processing have occurred and there is reason to expect that these advances will continue.

However, for almost all of today´s imaging systems, one aspect is still the same as 30 years ago, the human factor.

What is automation?

Automation or automatic control, is defined as the use of control systems for operating equipment and driving processes, e.g. in factories, at home, or in office environments.

In contrast to motorization, which just describes any item that contains a motor, automation implies, that minimal or reduced human intervention is required. The biggest benefit of automation therefore is, that it saves labor. Furthermore, it can be used to save energy and materials and to improve accuracy, reproducibility, quality and precision.

As for other automated systems, Automation in Microscopy is achieved by various means, including mechanical, electrical and electronic devices, sensors and computers, usually in combination.

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