Automation in Practice: Why it Makes Sense for your Lab

Automation is key to productivity and reliability and has therefore found its way into various industries, including laboratory applications. Although the degree of automation in labs is still far lower than can be found, for example, on production lines in the automotive industry, the benefits of automated processes in the lab are obvious, too.

Automating tasks and work steps in laboratories fulfills rising demands for repeatability as well as cost-efficiency. Perhaps one of its biggest advantages is that skilled employees are not required to undertake repeated procedures but can engage in more important tasks such as data analysis or report processing. In addition, automation also enhances other important factors in the lab like data quality.

Anton Paar has been developing automation solutions for laboratories since the 1970s, ranging from small-scale equipment like automated single syringe filling devices to large-scale platforms with up to 9 density meters that are automated to operate in parallel. With these high-end solutions the sample throughput can be increased to up to 3000 density measurements per day.

Which work steps can you automate in your laboratory?

The work steps in an analytical lab are versatile and range from the purchase of samples and consumables to data management and disposal of waste. Some of the routine steps require precise and consistent execution while others are very basic and would therefore be cheaper if carried out by lab instruments.

For analytical devices, the following general steps are worth considering for automation:

Ensuring that samples have a unique identity so that analysis data can be linked to individual samples in an automated manner.

Getting samples and instrumentation ready for the experiment or analysis and allocating samples in the desired manner.

Inserting the matter into the measuring cell with the help of autosamplers or robots.

Executing the physical or chemical analysis of a sample with a device that supports automation.

Processing data, giving data an interpretation and a meaning for further data processing.

Reusing resources or samples after finished analysis for further processing or disposing of them safely with the support of automation.

Leaving your used equipment in a secure state with the reliability of an automated procedure.

Looking at this in more detail from an automation point of view, further considerations have to be made. These are the questions you should ask when choosing automated solutions for your lab:

How many samples are processed daily?

Automated devices can work 24/7 and constantly produce measurement data and results. While a single-position sample changer provides stable measurement processes but requires the presence of an operator, there are sample changers available that operate a whole magazine of samples without the need for human interaction. Such sample changers pay off for a workload of approx. 15 samples per day or more.

How many devices are operated in parallel at the same time?

Automation works for you and can operate with several devices at the same time and without your interaction. The complete setup of analytical instrumentation determines the required sample volume which is basically the volume of the measuring cells and the hoses required to connect them. This information as well as the sample’s viscosity and the expected sample throughput are needed to make the decision for the right automation solution.

Are the sample characteristics comparable or diverging?

This fact determines the minimum degree of automation. If different samples must not be mixed, the automation unit needs to manage a cleaning process, too.

Is one and the same sample used for several analyses?

If samples are very expensive or only available in limited quantities, then automation helps to recover samples after the analysis so they can be used for further analysis.

Is the sample stable or does it tend to change its composition?

Samples with e.g. volatile components have to be handled at low temperatures or under pressure to prevent a loss of these components which inevitably would result in incorrect analytical results. Automatic sample changers help to meet these challenges as samples are kept in closed containers until the analysis is finished.

The benefits of automation in the lab

Automation in the lab enhances repeatability as well as cost-efficiency. However, the need for automating work steps may vary greatly depending on the workload and result in completely customized solutions for individual labs. Not all processes can be automated but most of them can be well supported or improved by automation.

These are the most important benefits:

  • You save time

Use the time when lab staff enjoys some time off. With automation you can use your devices during the night or on weekends. Lab workers will get a new role in their laboratory: Besides being responsible for their work and the outcome they also get the skills to operate and use automated solutions.

  • You save money by reducing costs

Reduction of costs is not only a matter of resources or used materials it is also a matter of produced waste. The ‘cost per measurement’ can easily be decreased by using less cleaning chemicals due to automated cleaning procedures and by processing samples during the night. This is especially true for automated solutions like sample changers with high-performance sample filling routines and a dedicated effective cleaning procedure. We have handled cases where the cost per measurement has been decreased by up to 50 % with automation solutions that are customized to individual requirements.

  • You increase repeatability & process safety

Good and reliable data also means that the repeatability and general process stability is high. Controlled and automated devices can help to improve this repeatability as well as the process safety.

  • You can be more flexible and be ready for the future with upgrades and extensions

If you have one automated solution it does not mean that your options for further improvements or setups are gone. You can always rebuild or change your measurement setup according to your present and future needs. Modern measuring systems that are designed in a modular way allow for individual future configuration changes.

  • You can rely on safety in the laboratory at critical points

The most important fact is the safety in a laboratory, not only for humans but also for devices. Even this important aspect can be supported by automated processes as humans are not exposed to dangerous vapors and do not have to handle aggressive liquids.

Which parts of your measurement and instruments can be automated?

The possibilities for automation in a modern lab are versatile and usually completely customizable. The claim for providers of automated analytical instruments is to fit into existing lab facilities and processes without the need to adapt them. The goal is, of course, not to replace human resources but to support them and do this in the best possible manner. That way, lab staff can take care of more important tasks rather than executing repetitive actions that can be handled by instruments more accurately and in a less error-prone way.

There are several levels of automation that can be achieved in an analytical laboratory:

In terms of analytical measuring devices, automation at the low-end starts with simply filling a sample into the instrument. If this instrument is meant to analyze the same type of samples continuously, such a filling device is used to simply replace the first with the second sample to be analyzed.

In the next stage of expanding automation, automated sample handling equipment can also clean the instrument after each measurement. Sample and cleaning liquids are automatically disposed of as well. At this point a small and reoccurring procedure such as filling and removing the sample out of the system is automated.

Depending on the sample’s nature, it is either filled under pressure (push) or sucked (pull) into the measuring devices. Samples that are highly viscous or even solid at room temperature can also be pre-heated automatically prior to analysis, eliminating the need for separate and extensive sample preparation procedures. All this can be carried out by an automated setup; lab staff only monitors and refills a magazine with further samples that have to be processed.

If samples arrive in the lab already equipped with a bar code label, this information can be used to identify them during the complete analysis procedure. Automatic sample handling equipment can therefore be fitted with a bar code reader to retrieve required sample information and match generated results to existing sample information. The core purpose of a lab – namely generating measured results or data about a substance – is automated by the utilization of various interfaces. RS-232, USB, and Ethernet interfaces are commonly used to distribute measurement tasks and subsequently transfer measured data to data processing equipment (LIMS – a laboratory information management system, or ERP – enterprise resource planning systems) or storage locations.

Here is an overview of sample filling units and sample changers:

Xsample 22

Single-position sample filling equipment with peristaltic pump for medium-viscosity liquids from any sample container

Xsample 122

24-, 48-, or 96-position sample changer with peristaltic pump for medium-viscosity liquids from 12 mL or 50 mL glass or plastic vials

Xsample 340

Single-position sample filling equipment with 2 cleaning liquids for highly viscous liquids from 2 mL, 5 mL, or 10 mL syringes

Xsample 52

Single-position sample filling equipment with piston pump for low-viscosity and/or volatile liquids from any sample container

Xsample 530

35- or 71-position sample changer with piston pump, up to 3 cleaning liquids, and an optional bar code reader for various sample types from 12 mL or 45 mL glass or plastic vials

Customized magazines with individual vial sizes are available upon request.

Xsample 352H

Single-position sample filling equipment with piston pump, 2 cleaning liquids, and active heating up to 80 °C for highly viscous samples from 12 mL or 50 mL glass vials

Xsample 452H

44-position sample changer with piston pump, 2 cleaning liquids, and active heating up to 80 °C for highly viscous samples from 12 mL glass vials

Are you thinking of automating your lab?
Find out which solution might be right for you:

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