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Robots in the Lab Hocus Cobots: How Robots Make Analytics More Efficient

Author / Editor: Jürgen von Hollen* / Ahlam Rais

Growing price pressure, fiercer competition, staff shortages — and now Covid-19: Laboratories are today facing a range of major challenges. Thankfully, robotics provides a reliable way to make laboratory analytics more efficient while easing the burden on specialist staff. The solution? Collaborative robots — or ‘cobots’.

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With collaborative robots taking care of monotonous activities, technicians can devote their time to more important work.
With collaborative robots taking care of monotonous activities, technicians can devote their time to more important work.
(Source: UR)

The Covid-19 pandemic is confronting countries across the world with new kinds of social and economic challenges. Especially in clinical laboratories, analytics systems are running round the clock to cope with the high volume of test samples. Diagnosticum is a network of 13 medical laboratories across Germany whose more than 600 staff work night and day to supply over 1,000 doctors and any number of stationary medical facilities with test results covering every aspect of laboratory medicine and pathology.

In response to Covid-19, the lab network had to add PCR tests for SARS-COV2 to its list of diagnostic activities. Internal process and staff capacity alike had to be adjusted to ensure that the vital PCR tests could be completed quickly. Almost out of nothing, Diagnosticum thus saw the birth of a whole new department dimensioned to handle three shifts a day. The problem was that it was not possible to recruit new staff on such a short notice. Good lab technicians are a rare breed – especially when the work involves unsociable hours and inconvenient operating models.

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Robotic Colleagues Take Care of Emergency Service

Ultimately, technical assistance provided a solution enabling the group to process the laboratory parameters needed for intensive care units and operating theaters as quickly as possible and on a 24/7 basis. A collaborative robot from Universal Robots – or a ‘cobot’ for short – now handles the unpopular night shift as an emergency service.

After successfully passing a risk assessment, the cobots work side by side with humans even in enclosed spaces. These lightweight collaborative robots are today deployed around the globe in all kinds of industries for tasks such as pick-and-place applications and surface processing. They normally handle work steps that must consistently be done with the same force and the same high level of precision however often it is repeated.

Medical and industrial laboratories too are increasingly taking advantage of their untiring accuracy, as are chemical analytics and medical technology applications. Cobots have long since disproved the misconception that automation is the exclusive preserve of large industrial corporations. On the contrary, compact lightweight robots can be incorporated seamlessly and effortlessly in the modern structures used even by small laboratories.

What Does a Cobot Actually Do?

At Diagnosticum, the ‘electric employee’ spends its nights doing exactly what the lab technicians do during the day: testing blood samples. To do so, it fills and empties a centrifuge, scans test tubes, unplugs them, places them in the measuring device and then removes them again after measurement.

Lastly, the cobot places the test tubes in the holding devices used to load the measuring equipment. Once the samples have been analyzed, the results are forwarded automatically to the doctor or hospital responsible via the laboratory information system (LIS). Data is transmitted between the different IT systems every two to three minutes, guaranteeing a swift and smooth flow of information.

When fitted with various peripheral products such as grippers and sensors, cobots can be assigned to countless other tasks in laboratory settings. They are ideal for monotonous and repetitive activities, such as regularly filling measuring devices with microbiological bacteria or chemical firing samples. In this context, collaborative robots can provide efficient relief to their human colleagues: In most cases, laboratory staff involved in this kind of process have to swap the samples every couple of minutes, after measuring is complete. If a collaborative robot assumes this duty, that frees the technicians up to do more demanding tasks in the meantime, such as more complex measurements and/or documentation.

Robots are suitable for a versatile array of applications. They are the perfect assistants for test processes in the industry too – for example in endurance testing, which is widespread in every branch of manufacturing. Endurance testing reveals how long a material remains undamaged and functional during intensive usage. It normally requires a specific movement to be repeated tens of thousands of times – a strenuous and unhealthy assignment for humans, but not for robots. Integrated software allows the latter to imitate user-typical forces, record increasing and decreasing forces during movement and register any defects on the test object.

Disinfection is another possible area of application. In light of the ongoing pandemic, many companies, public institutions and laboratories already use collaborative robots to meticulously clean surfaces, devices, workpieces and containers. This approach protects staff, customers and visitors alike from infection. Usually mounted on mobile platforms, the cobots can repeat the cleaning process as often as necessary, always with the same precision. They never miss a corner and can reach into every nook and cranny of the objects or spaces to be cleaned. A protective covering even allows them to be used in clean rooms – as well as making them easy to clean and disinfect themselves.

Useful Helpers – and How to Operate Them

Compared to traditional (and usually colossal) industrial robots, cobots are a much more handily sized species. Seventeen built-in and readily configurable safety functions mean they can do without bulky and expensive protective fixtures such as enclosures and light barriers. The slightest physical contact with a human or any object that is in the way instantly switches the robot into a dormant safety mode. For the clinical laboratory in Adorf, Germany manager Dr. Michael Praus opted for a UR10e cobot. He was particularly impressed by the robot’s 1.3-meter arm reach, which covered an extensive radius in the laboratory. Another plus was a consistently precise repeatability of +/- 0.05 mm. Given a total weight of just 33.5 kg and a space-saving footprint with a diameter of only 19 cm, the Adorf cobot can work alongside its human colleagues. Its movements are very quiet, and a modular design means it can easily be hooked up to an assortment of peripheral devices. In Dr. Praus’s emergency service laboratory, both cameras and gripper modules are used.

Automation helps laboratory facilities respond quickly and flexibly to existing and new challenges. The only requirement is that the technologies should be lightweight, space-saving and intuitive to use. Only then can they be slotted into regular operations without causing frequent interruptions. Cobots meet all these criteria. Depending on the complexity of the application, it only takes a few hours to incorporate collaborative robots in existing workflows. There is no need for special programming knowledge. The lightweight robots are also very user-friendly and intuitive to use: Laboratory staff use what is called a ‘teach panel’ as a simple way to give new instructions to their robotic colleague. The staff walk the cobot step by step through the individual waypoints by manually moving the robot arm to the desired positions. The cobot then repeats this sequence automatically.

The individual waypoints are entered and stored in the teach panel via a touchpad. Accordingly, no external programmers — and none of the usual exorbitant costs — are needed to set up and maintain the robot.

Future Vision – Using Cobots to Keep Laboratories Running

The lab technicians in Adorf now have peace of mind when they go home in the evenings, leaving the emergency nightshift in the capable hands of the robot. Collaborative robotics has helped Diagnosticum to overcome shortages of staff in general and specialists in particular. It has also been instrumental in mastering unexpected challenges. Simple, intuitive programming is another benefit that has served the laboratory group well.

Faster processing times, lower costs and higher quality are the bottom line. Relieved of monotonous activities, technicians can devote their time to more important work. For modern laboratories, collaboration between humans and robots is definitely the way forward — irrespective of the lab size, as cobots can be perfectly adapted to fit in with any and every working environment.

* J. von Hollen, former president until Jan/21, Universal Robots, 81379 Munich, Germany, Phone: +49-89-121-8972-0