A new modular approach to automating laboratory techniques could ease the process of scaling small-scale manual methods to high-volume commercial production.
The use of easily compatible "building blocks" of lab equipment such as dosing systems, pumps, incubators and scientific cameras, which can be fitted together in many different set ups, will allow manufacturers to build and easily adapt a prototype automated system before building the final production line.
Previously, when building large scale equipment to manufacture products such as biochips or microarrays, organisations would need to spend a long time designing the hardware before eventually building the machines. Often the laboratory processes would involve subtle procedures which were easily overlooked during the designing stage, and it was very difficult to adjust for these once the production line had been built.
The m:Pal (modular process automation laboratory) platform, developed by the Fraunhofer-Institut für Produktionstechnik und Automatisierung, is made up of many different building blocks, which are automatically compatible and easily connected together via USB cables to form the desired system. Specially developed software then allows the user to program the exact process to be performed, automatically, by the system.
This modular approach makes it easier for organisations to test many different techniques before finally deciding on the best set-up, which would then be built based on this design.
"In the past we had to build up test systems but it was only possible after a long development phase. The development process [using m:Pal] itself is much faster, and the financial risk of the development is much lower" said Andreas Traube, who led the team.
"The question of which method is best used for automation are very hard to answer in a theoretic way. There's a great danger that you could forget something, but with this set up you can make the hardware very early on to test the arrangement."
For smaller scale ventures, which required an automated approach but not at high throughputs, the m:Pal platform could act as the production line itself. This would be particularly useful if the production process needed to retain an element of flexibility, as the use could easily adjust the different components of the system to suit the particular product being produced. However, Traube believes that a customised set-up would still be necessary for high-volume production, to fully optimise the process to achieve the speeds required.
The different components of the construction kit were developed by OEMs, but the most important aspect of the platform is the software, developed by Traube's team, which automatically recognises the hardware and allows users to operate the equipment at the push of a button. "The key innovation is the modular software," says Traube. "This allows us to build up the whole process very quickly."