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Laboratory Automation Improve efficiency in the genomics lab with the Liquid Handling Automator

From Christian Lüttmann Reading Time: 5 min |

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Automation continues to advance, even in the laboratory. For the life science sector, SPT Labtech has developed a liquid handling station that can handle complex workflows such as next-generation sequencing. In an exclusive interview with LP, Jose Couto, Field Application Scientist Manager, explains what makes this automation solution so special and how it can make everyday work in genomics labs easier.

The all-in-one liquid handling platform from SPT Labtech relieves staff, e.g. in the genomics laboratory.
The all-in-one liquid handling platform from SPT Labtech relieves staff, e.g. in the genomics laboratory.
(Source: SPT Labtech)

Everyone is talking about it, every manufacturer wants to have the best solution for it — but how far has Lab 4.0 really arrived in reality, Mr. Couto?

Jose Couto: First, let's consider the definition of Lab 4.0, which is the integration of advanced automation technologies and digitization to transform traditional labs into more connected, intelligent, and data-driven spaces.


While it varies by industry and geography, we have already seen the development and implementation of several technologies that are revolutionizing the way labs operate, including AI and machine learning, big data, cloud computing, automation and robotics. Labs are increasingly choosing to automate common tasks, and we've seen the real-world impact of this, allowing labs to significantly increase productivity and throughput by streamlining operations and making better use of resources. Digitization enables laboratories to gain a deeper understanding of their data and make better, more insightful decisions.

There's still more to be done, and the nature of science means we're always looking for new and better ways to do things. As we learn more, I'm sure we'll see even more developments towards complete end-to-end automation in the lab, enabling us to accelerate research results even further.

What are the particular challenges in automating processes in laboratories?

As with any new system in the lab, implementing automation requires an initial investment of money, time, and resources. However, when done intelligently, lab automation offers a return on investment by streamlining processes, improving efficiency and reducing human error. The benefits of automation can offset the initial cost and provide significant savings over time.

Depending on the complexity of the automated system, some time and resources will be required to train the team to realize its full potential.

Adequate lab space can be a challenge when introducing new automated systems. If teams are looking to automate more than one process, the required equipment can quickly take up a significant amount of prime lab real estate. Managing and optimizing the available space becomes critical.

With the “firefly” liquid handling solution, SPT Labtech has launched a new device that is designed to make laboratory work easier. What is the device all about?

Firefly is our newest and most comprehensive liquid handling solution designed specifically to streamline genomics workflows. Firefly combines the capabilities of multiple instruments in a single compact design, including pipetting, dispensing, incubation and shaking. It provides scientists with all the automated liquid handling functions they need for a wide range of applications, including fast and reliable NGS library preparation and PCR setup. Designed with ease of use in mind, firefly is controlled by powerful yet intuitive software that minimizes the time and resources required for training.

The pipetting head is incredibly flexible as it can be used to transfer liquids across entire 96- or 384-well plates at once, as well as single or multiple columns of 8 or 16 wells. The non-contact positive displacement dispensing heads are designed to handle reagents, master mixes, and magnetic bead dispensing (bead cleanup) with a dispensing range from nanoliters to milliliters. The gripper within firefly moves labware to different deck positions as required by your protocol, including magnetic blocks (bead cleanup), shakers, and heating/cooling plates, significantly reducing hands-off time at the bench.

This video gives an overview of the functions and application examples of firefly:

What can the device do that other liquid handling systems cannot?

Firefly's dispensing functionality is built around innovative positive displacement technology, which means it can handle all liquid classes, including the most volatile or viscous liquids, as well as magnetic bead slurries, without compromising speed or accuracy. By eliminating the need for liquid classification, protocol development time is significantly reduced.

Because firefly combines the functionality of multiple instruments in one, scientists can benefit from automated NGS library preparation without sacrificing valuable laboratory space, which is at a premium for many labs. The instrument is even operated from a touch screen mounted on the front of the system, so there's no need to take up bench space for an additional computer.

Something that sets firefly apart from other liquid handlers on the market is its ease of use. The firefly software makes it easy to set up and run protocols, so you don't have to be a programming expert to reap the benefits of laboratory automation.

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How do users in the laboratory benefit from this new liquid handling system?

Our dedicated, all-in-one automated liquid handler offers users the ability to transform their genomics workflows and take the stress out of everyday lab life. Firefly significantly increases laboratory efficiency and throughput by performing repetitive tasks much faster than manually, allowing scientists to spend more time on critical aspects such as data analysis and experimental design.

Firefly makes it easy to standardize protocols with its cloud sharing feature. Protocols can be designed from anywhere using the software on any laptop or tablet and instantly shared with selected users. Even if collaborators are located in different organizations or geographies, you can be confident that you're running experiments identically, leading to improved data quality, consistency, and reliability, and minimizing the risk of human error.

Firefly also allows experiments to be miniaturized while maintaining accuracy, extending the use of valuable reagents and samples. This capability allows labs to generate more data within their budget.

What further developments of the liquid handling device are planned or already implemented?

Our mission is to make a real difference to human health by empowering pharma and biotech teams to accelerate research outcomes through automation. We do this by building powerful yet intuitive solutions (like firefly) and providing expert guidance and support so that more labs can realize the benefits of automation and move further towards Lab 4.0.

With firefly, genomics labs can handle valuable samples more efficiently and free up resources for more complex lab tasks, such as pathogen surveillance workflows. We're hearing from our customers that they're impressed with the small bench-top footprint and intuitive software, as well as the flexibility of the instrument with its multiple capabilities and layout options.

As for the future of firefly, we're working on an additional expansion unit (firefly+) that will include an on-deck thermocycler with an automated sealing lid, allowing scientists to set up and run PCR reactions on-deck as part of an automated firefly protocol, increasing walk-away time. We're also adding additional tip and labware capacity to firefly+ to expand the ability to run complete end-to-end workflows away from the bench.

Jose Couto – Bio

Jose Couto, EU Field Application Scientist Manager at SPT Labtech
Jose Couto, EU Field Application Scientist Manager at SPT Labtech
(Source: SPT Labtech)

Jose combines nineteen years of experience in the field of laboratory automation and liquid handling related roles, including systems integrations, customer support, sales, and applications.

He joined the SPT Labtech product strategy team as a Senior Applications Scientist in November 2021. Currently, Jose holds the position of European Field Applications Scientists Manager supporting SPT Labtech’s growing customer base in Europe, working closely with the Sales, Product Management, Marketing and Support teams.