Transforming Life Science Lab Automation Standardization & Modularization

Transforming Life Science Lab Automation Standardization & Modularization
Transforming Life Science Lab Automation Standardization & Modularization

Standards, coupled with the convergence of technologies that have been refined and cost reduced, are enabling the automation of manual laboratory tasks, providing greater productivity, precision, and quality. Life science laboratory standardization and modularization supporting automation is increasing the efficiency and number of practical applications in life sciences including drug discovery and small batch single-use pharmaceutical applications.
Festo announced and demonstrated products supporting these applications including laboratory-based automated liquid handling at the 2022 Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS) conference Feb. 5-9, 2022 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. The new products and demonstrations at 2022 SLAS are outcomes of Festo’s LifeTech division focused on understanding and designing solutions for medical technology and laboratory automation applications.

About SLAS

Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS) is an international professional society of academic, industry, and government researchers as well as developers and providers of laboratory automation technology and tools. SLAS advances scientific innovation by providing education, collaboration, and professional development that unites scientists across disciplines to transform research. Activities include the pursuit of research excellence by offering tangible resources such as its international conferences and symposia, scientific publishing, and opportunities for continuing education, grants and scholarships, professional collaboration, networking and career advancement.

Laboratory automation evolution

Initially, automated laboratory devices were built by scientists themselves as custom implementations. After World War II, companies started to provide automated equipment performing very specific tasks but were expensive. Today, modularization and standardization have resulted in a growing number of low-cost electronic devices, including open-source devices compatible with common laboratory instruments. A growing number of laboratories are achieving low-cost synchronized automation increasing productivity using modular building block solutions that can scale to fit various applications with standard physical and electronic interfaces.
Laboratory automation has evolved as a multi-disciplinary strategy to research, develop, optimize, and capitalize on technologies in the laboratory that enable new and improved processes, reducing lab process cycle times and enabling experimentation that otherwise would be impossible. Laboratory automation uses many different automation devices including laboratory instruments, fluid devices, robotics, and software.
The application of technology in today’s laboratories is required to achieve timely progress and remain competitive. Laboratories devoted to activities such as high-throughput screening, combinatorial chemistry, automated clinical and analytical testing, diagnostics, large-scale biorepositories, and many others, would not exist without advances in laboratory automation.

Personalized medicine and small batch

Laboratory automation building blocks also have a role in the movement toward personalized medicine and small batch production. This shift in the life science industry achieving high-yielding small volume production also requires flexible sterile biotechnology processes. Festo noted this is a high growth area.
Self-contained laboratory platform: In addition to building blocks, Festo introduced and demonstrated a self-contained laboratory platform in an enclosure for laboratory-based automated liquid handling and analysis built on open mechanical and software standard interfaces (figure 1). It includes a gantry robot, mechatronics controller, pressure and vacuum generator (PVGA), control panel, and room for a user/machine builder application CPU in a neat, ready-to-program assembly. Machine builders and users can design and build solutions by adding modules that require fewer mechanical and electrical engineering resources and shortening time to deployment. This pre-engineered packaged platform can ship in eight to 12 weeks, and production can be scaled up rapidly where needed to suit urgent applications such as COVID testing.

Figure 1: Self-contained laboratory platform in an enclosure for laboratory-based automated liquid handling. Shown are the cabinet front (left) with scalable width of 750 mm to 2,250 mm and depth of 750 mm, and integrated gantry robot; and the cabinet back, which contains motion controller, input/output (I/O) connectors, and user application processor.

Building blocks: Festo also introduced a complete family of building blocks for developing pressure/time-based automated dispensing and pipetting applications. This platform is compatible with a broad range of media, offers exceptional repeatability at high speed, and can be calibrated for targeted applications including:

  • Pressure/vacuum generator: A core component of the family, the PGVA pressure/vacuum generator (figure 2) supplies microfiltered air and vacuum for lab fluidic applications, including dispensing and pipetting. A single automated pipetting system equipped with a PGVA can transfer a range of liquid volumes from milliliters on up with +2 percent precision.

  • Open-loop pipettes: Festo introduced open-loop pipettes for pressure-over-liquid aspirating and dispensing in automated systems (figure 3). A single automated pipetting system equipped with a Festo onboard PGVA pressure/vacuum airbox can transfer a range of liquid volumes from milliliters on up with +2 percent precision. Dispense/pipette heads are available in variants from one to 96 channels for high throughput applications.

  • Open-source software: PGVA open-source software to improve FESTO liquid handling integration companies make available open-source control software available at

Figure 2: Festo onboard PGVA pressure/vacuum airbox.

Figure 3: Open-loop pipettes for pressure-over-liquid aspirating and dispensing in automated systems.

University programs

Some universities offer entire programs that focus on lab technologies including Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, which offers a graduate program devoted to Laboratory Informatics. Keck Graduate Institute in California offers a graduate degree with an emphasis on development of assays, instrumentation, and data analysis tools required for clinical diagnostics, high-throughput screening, genotyping, microarray technologies, proteomics, imaging and other applications.

About The Author

Bill Lydon brings more than 10 years of writing and editing expertise to, plus more than 25 years of experience designing and applying technology in the automation and controls industry. He is also director, North America for the PLCopen organization. Lydon started his career as a designer of computer-based machine tool controls; in other positions, he applied programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and process control technology. Working at a large company, Lydon served a two-year stint as part of a five-person task group, that designed a new generation building automation system including controllers, networking, and supervisory and control software. He also designed software for chiller and boiler plant optimization. Lydon was product manager for a multimillion-dollar controls and automation product line and later cofounder and president of an industrial control software company.

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