When throughput outsizes processing capacity, it’s time to automate liquid handling, right? Sure, but that’s not the only time. There are various other reasons to automate liquid handling, and it can be done in many ways with different kinds of equipment.
When thinking about when to automate liquid handling, Cris Cowan, technology manager at Promega (Madison, WI), points out reasons beyond increasing throughput, like reproducibility. “You may need consistency between technicians—something that does a process the same way every time,” he says. Or, maybe a lab needs to reduce errors or eliminate some repetitive tasks.
Other experts make similar arguments for automation. “When manual sample preparation can no longer produce the quality and reproducibility required to maintain the necessary throughput level, automation should be a consideration,” says Maryann Shen, automation marketing manager at Agilent Technologies (Santa Clara, CA). “There are also instances where the needed throughput is not high, but the research requires outstanding reproducibility. In these cases, the choice to enable the workflow on an automated liquid handler is highly desirable.”
As an example, a need for better process tracking can also lead to automation. “In clinical and forensic labs, traceability is a huge issue,” Cowan notes. “In more regulated labs, even something as simple as transferring a sample from one tube to another requires two technicians, one to transfer and one to audit traceability.” That gets a lot easier with automated liquid handling.
The chemistry in some processes can also become so complex that automated liquid handling would make it easier. Getting to this simplified process, though, can take a pretty complicated journey.
Choosing a platform
“We are kind of in a golden age of options,” Cowan says. “At one end of the spectrum, there are really simple and low-cost systems that are easy to use, but limited in what they can do, and at the other end there are large liquid handlers that can be programmed to do about anything, including being integrated with other devices.” Plus, there is about anything in between those two ends of the automation spectrum.
Although every lab situation poses some unique considerations in liquid handling, some commonalities exist. When asked how to select the best automated liquid-handling robot for a lab’s needs, Shen says, “The lab manager should consider the following criteria: throughput requirements; flexibility and scalability to accommodate multiple workflow needs; ease-of-use, which would impact how quickly the system can be implemented in the lab to generate results; pipette-performance requirements; size of the system; and, finally, cost.”
As examples of options, Shen says, “Agilent provides automated liquid-handling systems that have a very small footprint and come with predesigned and validated forms enabling lab technicians—regardless of skill level—to operate the system immediately without customization by an automation specialist.”
Specifically, Shen mentions the Agilent Bravo Automated Liquid Handling Platform, which is a benchtop general-purpose liquid handler. “The Bravo system is suitable for different applications, including the ELISA assay, plate stamping, compound management, and many others,” she explains. “It can also be integrated with the Agilent BenchCel Microplate Handler, which enables even higher throughput and added capabilities, including plate sealing, plate labeling, and centrifugation.”
The Agilent Bravo Automated Liquid Handling Platform is a fast and reliable liquid-handling device packaged in a small footprint. (Image courtesy of Agilent Technologies.)
In some cases, scientists prefer more dedicated instruments. As an example, Shen says, “The Agilent AssayMAP Bravo Platform—a variation of the Bravo Automated Liquid Handling Platform—is specifically designed for protein and peptide sample preparation, including affinity purification, digestion, peptide/protein desalting, fractionation, and phosphopeptide enrichment.” She adds, “The AssayMAP system is also prepopulated with a variety of application-driven forms that can be used by anyone in the lab immediately after installation.”
Possibilities in prep
Nucleic-acid extraction and analysis comprise a crucial element of the workflow in many labs. Some Promega products focus on those steps. “We have the chemicals and instrumentation for a throughput continuum from manual processing through intermediate robotics to integrating chemistries on large liquid handlers from multiple vendors,” Cowan says.
For examples of instrumentation, Promega offers the Maxwell line as easy-to-use instruments for nucleic-acid extraction. The most recent version in this instrument line can process anywhere from 1 to 48 samples. The new Maxprep Liquid Handler is designed to be used with the Maxwell line of instruments. This system performs extraction preprocessing of up to 48 samples as well as a variety of downstream postprocessing reaction setups, all with full traceability. “It comes with a graphical user interface and preprogrammed methods,” Cowan explains. “We also provide reagents in predispensed cartridges, making extraction as simple and efficient as possible.”
Promega’s Maxprep Liquid Handler performs extraction preprocessing of up to 48 samples as well as a variety of downstream postprocessing reaction setups with full traceability. (Image courtesy of Promega.)
These platforms can be combined in various ways. For instance, “you could feed multiple Maxwell instruments with one Maxprep, and modules can be assembled to meet the needs of the laboratory,” Cowan says. Customers could also start with a Maxwell and then add a Maxprep for pre- and postprocessing at a later time.
It’s not all about the operation or technology in automated liquid handling, because the operators matter just as much. In short, a lab manager must ensure that lab personnel buy into the transition. “It’s very common that we find a lab that purchased automation and it sat for a year and a half because no one wanted to touch it,” Cowan says. “You need to work on the transition and assure the lab personnel that they won’t lose their jobs because of changing the daily workflow.”
A lab manager must also consider who will run the equipment. In addition, some systems may require programming, which might necessitate recruitment of new talent or payment for the work.
Timing and cost should also be considered in planning to automate liquid handling. For a small, personal system, it could be available in just a few days, and the lab personnel can install it. Modular systems might take 2–3 months to arrive, and require installation by a factory representative and a couple days of training. For a large liquid-handling system, delivery will probably take 3–4 months, followed by a vendor installing it and providing training over a week or so. Across the spectrum, the cost of automation can range from about $20,000 for a personal system to greater than $500,000 for highly customized, larger systems.
So, a how-to for automating liquid handling covers lots of ground. It all starts with deciding what pain point in a lab most needs attention that automation could provide, and moving ahead from there. Fixing one pain point, though, creates another, and the cycle continues.
Mike May is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas. He can be reached at [email protected]