Lab Automation Will Collaborative Robots and Artificial Intelligence Become the New Normal in Laboratories?
Lab work can be tedious but even simple tasks are crucial and often contribute to saving lives. Due to the shortage of qualified staff, cobots could help laboratories cope with the workload and make the lab of the future a reality. German start-up company bAhead claims this can be done easily and at relatively low costs.
Hamburg/Germany — Modern test- and product laboratories are a key factor facilitating a society’s economic efficiency as well as its public health, as the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated in a fairly dramatic way. But our labs have reached their technological limits: In R&D labs, efforts and costs to create the latest innovation are continuously on the rise, while medical labs remain severely understaffed — in Germany alone, some 3000 MTA positions are currently open. In addition, labs are facing the tough cost pressure of Europe’s competitive market. And since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, many labs have been working over capacity both in personnel and in technology.
However, standard processes, in particular, can be (partly) automated, but these solutions are quite expensive, primarily during the kick-off phase, elaborate in the programming and difficult to integrate. In addition they are not flexible enough and tied to certain systems. Robot-based applications can only be operated separately in a safely enclosed area, making the work-flow, handling and logistics of Human-Robot Collaboration (HRC) all the more challenging.
For a few years now, the integration of cobots has opened completely new perspectives for the robot-based automation of labs. Compact robots such as the Cobotta by Denso Robotics have been especially designed for the safe and close cooperation with humans. They can be operated without any protection fences or elaborate programming and are also financially viable for SMBs as the investment usually takes only a few months’ amortization. As a result, the share of cobots in the overall robot market has increased by eleven percent globally in 2019.
The Cobotta is at the core of a new lab concept, the “Futurelab“. Developed by the Hamburg-based start-up bAhead, founded three years ago, the company has teamed up with the tabletop robot expert Denso Robotics. The Cobotta is the only tabletop Cobot approved by the German TÜV and has also won a design award. For life science, biotech and med-tech labs, the “Futurelab“ offers a highly efficient, flexible and cost-efficient lab automation, which can also be applied to environmental, food and industry labs.
“For the first time, we have combined three disruptive technologies in a lab solution — collaborative robots, 3D cam system and artificial intelligence. All parts of the system are cost-efficient, multi-functional and precisely balanced with each other, with a central coordination via swarm intelligence“, bAhead founder and CEO Rainer Treptow explains. “This creates a completely different dynamic than a standard lab automation, particularly in labs that have to introduce automation despite small sample turnovers.“
At the center of these three technologies is the Cobotta, performing various tasks in the lab. Through the two lenses of a 3D-camera mounted on the cobot’s arm, positions and their changes can be recognized by mixers or rotors and readjusted via AI. Barcodes, displays and keys can be read, interpreted and operated, making the robot a real multi-talent. Even results on the display of a device can be read, digitized and passed on via Wi-Fi. But the key advantage of Cobotta is its function as the central element, easily integrating all lab devices: By using the robot, any challenging network integration with interface programming is no longer needed, the company states. Instead, proven and existing lab devices can be used — thereby saving costs and time.
“We have opted for Cobotta following a thorough product comparison, because this is the best combination for a completely safe HRC solution“, says Rainer Treptow. “We were convinced by the open platform, the easy usability, the functional safety with the inherently safe design, the TÜV certification and, last but not least, the high quality and the valuable Denso Robotics support.“
Equally important for the application were the technical parameters such as speed and high repeatability as well as its unit weight of only 4 kg and a payload of 500 g. The robot, for example, is capable of approaching a microtiter plate — a standard sample format to examine biological characteristics of sample — containing 96 wells (small vessels for the samples) with a speed of only 50 seconds per well with a precision of 5/100 mm in the approach and dive into the well — an excellent performance figure, Rainer Treptow explains.
A shoe-/rail system gives the Cobotta mobility, enabling the robot to be operated at different workplaces, while also expanding its scope of action — both at the working spaces and in terms of height, as most applications are being operated 10 cm above the work surfaces or require the robot arm to reach into a centrifuge, for example. The rail system thereby expands the range of services of a lab while boosting efficiency: The same cobot can be moved from one workplace to another in just a few minutes in order to perform a different task. This is particularly important during the initial phase when a lab starts to automate suitable processes, with the workplaces not fully occupied 24/7.
AI Controlled Lab Processes
The tower hotel, multi-functional and full automated high-rise storage system, is another central element of the smart logistics, connecting the „short range“ activities of various cobots at workplaces with the „long range“ logistics in the laboratory. It handles a range of various tasks in a simple and robust way. Standardized containers capable of holding different sizes of consumables, samples and reagents are stored there. In order to streamline logistics for the different vessels and formats in laboratories, a standard container was developed, that can incorporate various consumable formats, samples or reagents (chemical substances showing a specific reaction when in contact with another substance) via adapters and trays, making it easily possible for the cobot to remove or insert them. One container offers space for 4 to 5 MTP´s.
Providing future lab’s logistics, the tower hotel is prepared for drone logistics and their landing on the top of the tower hotel — which doubles as a charging station. This future option is ready tested, the company states.
The second fast developing technology is the camera. The camera has two stereo lenses and in addition to that an IR-light projector and a special colour sensor. With this combination the cobot can measure distances, exact positions and build a digital twin which can help to simulate an application.
The third and central technology in operation is the Artificial Intelligence — the lab’s „brain“ an AI-based, central control system capable of reading all processes, i.e. devices, drones, tower hotel and the Cobotta, controlling them, if required, via AI or swarm intelligence. The workflow is planned, started and controlled using a tablet or laptop. The systems controls monitor every single step, creating a data-based quality management. In addition, there is a link to a cloud equipped with an open source database for Cobotta programming modules, devices and consumables, accessible by all users. In the long run, this set-up is creating a self-optimizing system offering a valuable knowledge database.
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Based on Tried and Tested Technology
This automation concept is based on existing products and partial automation, but it is designed as an evolutionary set-up. Compared to standard, manually operated labs, but also vis-à-vis other automation solutions, the “Futurelab“ provides significant advantages in terms of costs, speed, and quality because Cobotta is bypassing all of the usual interface issues. This allows for all existing devices, even those without any interface, to be used as well: All elements of the system can be operated as often as required and also in changing processes.
According to the company, this set-up is saving both costs and time due to the multi-functional, modular structure, the lab’s competitiveness and flexibility are increased, enabling a lab to process the multiple of samples for a fraction of the usual costs.
“The lab of the future will be digitized in the most simple and flexible way. Thanks to its many advantages and the dynamic progress in the development of AI, for example, the cobot and its ecosystem will become the new standard for lab automation“, says Rainer Treptow. “We believe that this is by far the most sustainable and truly universal solution for the 21st century lab.“
Currently, prototypes and some already existing construction patterns undergo further optimizing development were presented as a first full set-up of the ”Futurelab“ by mid-2021 and a beta phase at the end of this year.