The Hybrid Lab

Uniting Manual Workplaces, Automation, Logistics, and Information Technology for the Laboratory of the Future

  • © AlienCat – Fotolia.com© AlienCat – Fotolia.com
  • © AlienCat – Fotolia.com
  • Fig. 1: In our laboratory scenario, human technicians conduct experiments under supervision of the lab information management system Synapse and with support by carrier robots that interface with automated stations and storage (parts of this figure are provided with courtesy of Fraunhofer IGB, Stuttgart, Germany).
  • Dipl. Bio-Inf. Sandra Knoch and Dipl. Inf. Sebastian Schöning, both research assistants at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation

Technicians that can concentrate on important research work without the need to worry about tedious jobs? Seamless integration of manual and automated tasks? Small helpers that transport substances and samples from one workplace to another? Intelligent laboratory devices that communicate autonomously with the laboratory information system? - Sounds like a science-fiction movie! When it comes to laboratories, we aim to turn these ideas into reality in the near future.

Working in Laboratories


Laboratories remain the central workplace in research and industry whenever biological, chemical, or pharmaceutical experiments have to be conducted in small batches and in a flexible way. Usually, such experiments are complex processes comprised of a plenitude of manual steps, where specific steps might be supported by automated devices but whole processes are not. Additionally, experiments are often performed only once and even if experiments resemble each other closely the experimentation parameters differ definitely. Hence, the outcome of experiments is governed by the skills of the technician.

Beside the actual experimental work, lab personnel is occupied a large amount of its labor time with tedious jobs, e.g. with the manual process of planning, documentation, and evaluation of experiments. Another time killer is the retrieval and return of materials that are required for experiments. Studies indicate that a considerable fraction of labor time is spent with supportive jobs in labs, like manual documentation [1]. This is even more astounding if one considers that information technology and automation is widely spread in labs nowadays: Modern personal computers can be found alongside sophisticated experimentation devices. Software infrastructures, so-called laboratory information management systems (LIMS or LIS), are used to supervise lab logistics but - on the other hand - the conventional hand-written laboratory journal still prevails. Besides efficiency, automated devices are designed for reproducibility of specific experiments and exact documentation of results thereof - the flexible integration into pervasive lab workflows is not an issue though [1-3].

The gaps here are the interfaces between the information infrastructure and human technicians, between manual workplaces and logistics, between logistics and automated devices, et cetera. These gaps are filled by the intuition and flexibility of human technicians, who cannot be replaced by machines. Therefore, a fully automated lab pays off only for frequently repeated experiments with a fixed structure, as in the case of high-throughput screening systems [2]. This discussion shows that human technicians remain indispensible in the long run. But how can we complement the abilities of technicians by novel devices and methodologies for an increased effectiveness?

Our Approach: The Hybrid Lab

Since several years, the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (Fraunhofer IPA) is researching for ways to integrate manual workplaces and lab automation. Our findings revealed that a full fusion of workspaces for both humans and machines is futile. For example, a robot installed at a manual workplace demands high programming skills and the security and safety for humans is not easy to guarantee. Therefore, we pursue a hybrid approach: Automation, manual workplaces, and storage facilities are kept separated but remain connected by appropriate logistic devices. In addition, a dedicated LIMS constitutes a ubiquitous information infrastructure that supports technicians in all their needs.

Our approach combines several projects and disciplines from our institute, viz. the modular process automation laboratory m:Pal (lab automation), the Synapse framework (lab information management system), the interface desktop "i:NLET" (human-machine interfaces for labs), the logistics projects "Tischlein, Deck Dich!" (robotics), and the project "Web4Life" (device communication based on web services).

The modular process automation laboratory m:Pal is a versatile platform for a flexible implementation of automated lab processes [4, 5]. The system provides a variety of dedicated stations that implement most common lab tasks, like the handling of fluids in pico-to-nano liter scales, the handling of microtiterplates, or the measurement of physical, chemical, or biological features. Stations are endowed with standardized interfaces (electronic, mechanics, fluidics), which allow them to be placed arbitrarily on a dedicated desktop. The scenario is rounded up by automated carriers that connect stations. Lab processes can be defined quickly via an intuitive user interface and carriers implement their execution. The m:Pal demonstrates the versatility of automated lab processes and their smart integration into manual procedures. Furthermore, the system is used to show how manual processes can be converted into feasible automated lab processes.

The Synapse framework was originally developed as a manufacturing execution system and recently adopted for laboratory requirements [6]. Beside mandatory functionalities like planning, documentation, and data governance, the Synapse framework facilitates a consistent and thorough versioning of all pieces of information as one of its paramount features. The evolution of lab processes, samples that undergo lab processes, or even the software itself - everything can be traced back. A proper versioning-and-tracking infrastructure is of utmost importance in modern laboratories, where the tracking of each and every sample and all process steps that have been conducted is required at any instant.

The interface between our LIMS, the automation, and the manual workplace is considered in the project "i:NLET". Instead of providing separate personal computers as bridge to the information infrastructure, we integrate the computer and its monitor into the actual workplace. Thereby, the workplace becomes the interface to the LIMS. The project "i:NLET" demonstrates how modern information technologies can be applied for lab environments.

The project "Tischlein, Deck Dich!" (in English "The Wishing Table") aims to provide a semi-autonomous transportation system that interfaces automated and manual workplaces. The system comprises a number of carriers that transport substances between lab desks, automated devices, and storage facilities. We chose a simple navigation approach for reason of reliability and flexibility: Carriers move along marked tracks on top of desks. In the simplest case, tracks are indicated by rubber tape that can easily be put on or removed from desks. Stations are recognized by means of barcodes, which are legible by both machines and humans. Transportation jobs are assigned to carriers by the LIMS, which in turn is controlled by the human technician through the dedicated interface desktop "i:NLET". The advantage is clear: Instead of spending labor time with errands, technicians concentrate on tasks they are qualified for.

The project "Web4Life" enhances commercial laboratory devices with web services. Devices are equipped with an additional intelligence (by means of microcontrollers) that bridge communication to a LIMS. Thereby, the LIMS is enabled to control lab devices directly, which is, for example, required to allow technicians to remotely start or stop measurements or to request status information about ongoing processes.

Towards the Lab of the Future

A first demonstrator of our laboratory was shown at the 50th anniversary of the Fraunhofer IPA. The principle setup of our demonstrator is illustrated in figure1: A dedicated manual work place for technicians forms the center of the laboratory. Experiments are initiated, supervised, and completed at this dedicated desk. Also, conventional manual process steps are conducted here. The desk is both: The work place for humans and the interface to the LIMS, where the latter is provided by a computer screen that is built into the desk's surface. The transportation of substances and ingredients is delegated to semi-autonomous carrier robots that are controlled by the LIMS. Thereby, a seamless connection between manual work places, automated storages, and automated laboratories is established. Start and end positions of transportation robots can be defined freely on top of the manual work place, thus allowing technicians to integrate logistics into their manual work flows conveniently.

Our approach obviously turns conventional manual lab working places into highly-complex environments. In the near future, we aim to extend our demonstrator to an experimentation lab that shows all features described in this article and that allows visitors to test these features in a realistic setup. We strongly believe that hybrid laboratories constitute not only an interdisciplinary playground for new ideas and concepts but also demonstrate highly-efficient, valuable, and comfortable working environments.

References are available from the authors.


 

Authors

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Fraunhofer-Institut für Produktionstechnik und Automatisierung IPA
Nobelstr. 12
70569 Stuttgart
Germany
Phone: +49 711 970-00
Telefax: +49 711 970-1399

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