Is Variable Production “Science Fiction”?
From Manufacture to “Replicator”
- Fig.1: Raman measurement by Metrohm at the Wiley booth at Analytica.
- Fig.2: Measuring the pH of solid and liquid foodstuffs by Hanna Instruments at the Wiley booth at Analytica.
- Fig.3: Measuring XRF of metal samples by analyticon at the Wiley booth at Analytica.
- Fig.4: Mini MS Detector by Gilson.
- Fig.5: 200 Compact GC by Ellutia.
In “Star Trek - Next Generation”, nearly all items for everyday consumption such as food and beverages are produced by a single device, the replicator. For us today, this is science fiction. However, many devices of everyday life today are already more advanced than those that were still science fiction in the first Star Trek series. When we remember Captain Kirk’s “communicator” and compare it to our smartphones we can only smile.
According to the Collins English Dictionary, “fictitious” is an adjective meaning:- not authentic, assumed, created by the imagination. This is no longer true for much of the technology that was in the series.
This year at the GIT Laboratory journal’s booth on the Analytica, we collaborated with manufacturers of analytical instruments to show what you can buy in the field of „Tricorders“ today - portable Raman analyzers (Metrohm), electrochemical analyzers (Hanna Instruments) and X-ray fluorescence analyzers. Other portable and miniaturized devices such as a single quad mass spectrometric detector for HPLC (Gilson) or a portable GC (Ellutia) were also on display.
The Replicator is the final stage in development of what is begun as variable production. A manufacturing facility produces various products. Nowadays, due to the variability of the highly automated production process, hardly any two vehicles produced in automobile production are identical. Nevertheless, it is the same type of car that comes out in the end. Manufacturing processes are already so variably controllable that they have found their way into the highly individualized processes of the laboratories and now replace the previous “manufacturing operation”. On the Analytica, a dosing unit (Hirschmann), a magnetic stirrer (2Mag) and a climatic chamber (Memmert) were assembled into one system and operated in unison. It was also shown that the parameters can easily be adjusted during operation. Together with a balance, an LIMS, a robotic arm and a chemical cabinet that communicates with the chemicals via RFID chips for example, many different analytical processes or syntheses could be performed on a single system.
In molecular biology, things are already one step ahead.
Smaller volumes and thus devices and processes that essentially agitate, temper, dose and transfer, and then analyze the data, are somewhat easier to automate here. In this way, service providers (transcriptics) can carry out complex molecular biological procedures on behalf of the client while said client remains in his laboratory only needing to define and set any parameters. Since the service provider also buys in PCR primers or antibodies, the client only has to send in his samples, all other processes are run by the service provider. One after the other, the system at the service provider works through different but related processes from various clients.
Nowadays, countless undergraduate, graduate or doctoral students carry out vast numbers of such processes every day with the associated human inaccuracies in hundreds of different labs. A drastic reduction of the required laboratories with simultaneously increasing reproducibility of experiments would therefore already be feasible. No one need fear this development as researchers could then reverse the sad old uncertainty of research: Research will then consist of 99% inspiration and 1% transpiration.