New Pipetting and Liquid Handling Technologies: Innovations in Robotics and Process Automation

This year kicked off with a host of exciting developments and products in the liquid handling world -- many of which were showcased at the Society for Lab Automation and Screening conference.

Performance, versatility, ergonomics were product themes that prevailed over the past year. The next generation of emerging technologies promise to bridge these advancements together with fresh automation and robotic solutions.

Pipetting – quality control and automation

Pipettes and pipette controllers were designed traditionally around reliability and relatively simple operation.

  • Recent advancements in ergonomic engineering have sought to alleviate hand strain and user discomfort while boosting productivity.
  • Pipetting versatility has been improved by incorporation of multi-speed settings, aliquoting options, exchangeable components, and other features.
  • Performance upgrades have corrected for pipetting angle, sample thermal expansion, and other variables.
  • Of course, calibration, service, and maintenance have been hot topics in more recent years as well.

The latest pipetting innovations incorporate automated and intelligent control features inline with the smart laboratory concept.

  • Pipetting performance, calibration, service, and tracking are increasingly important in high-throughput, regulated lab environments. Platforms such as the pipette calibration system (PCS) from Artel permit in-house calibration and pipette performance tracking for labs of all scales. Artel Liquid Handling Services provide the means to apply quality control to existing liquid handling systems on-site without affecting existing workflows.
  • The pipetting robot from Andrew Alliance was both an interesting and entertaining technology at SLAS this year. The Andrew + system permits repeatable, traceable pipetting with connected single and multichannel electronic pipettes. The Robot performs complex manipulations using a wide range of compatible accessories, along with flexible configurations of Andrew pipettes. The OneLab software enables intuitive design of protocols and method tracking features to safely share information among lab operators, accessible by ethernet or WiFi connectivity

Automated liquid handling - Acoustic droplet technology

Acoustic Liquid Handling technology surfaced a few years ago as a novel technique to rapidly separate and dispense nanoliter volumes with high accuracy and precision.

  • We discussed the Echo platform from LabCyte on the heels of the 2018 SLAS conference. The next release, the Echo 655T liquid handler, was on display at this year’s conference. Advantages include complete non-contact transfer of samples from Echo microplates or storage tubes for omics and screening applications.
  • LabCyte also showcased the Access Dual Robot System as a configurable automation platform to interface with the Echo Liquid Handling System.

Acoustic Liquid Handling technology has now reached widespread adoption as evidenced by the many new platforms and applications present at SLAS the year.

Automated liquid handling – Interfacing sample distribution with sample prep and analysis

Automated Liquid Handling technologies have now evolved past typical high-throughput precision sample distribution. New waves of innovation seek to directly couple sample handling with sample preparation and analysis. From Next Gen Sequencing (NGS) to Mass Spectrometry, advanced platforms are now bridging the gap created by the sample prep rate-limiting step.

  • NGS applications such as SNP analysis, RNA-seq, and DNA-Seq are challenged by several process bottlenecks that can limit high-throughput workflows. For instance, sequence libraries typically require exogenous, off-line quantification by qPCR for subsequent processing.
  • Companies such as Tecan have integrated reagents and kits into these workflows, enabling built-in quantification and preventing inefficiencies.
  • Fresh off the development of the new Tecan Genomics initiative, the new NGS DreamPrep is designed to couple the performance of their flagship liquid handling platform, the Fluent, with a suite of NGS sample prep protocols such as the Celero DNA-Seq kit.
  • The products are meant to subsequently interface with sequencing platforms for complete end-to-end NGS solutions

Future Developments

Pipetting and Liquid Handling systems have attained higher levels of functionality. Innovative tools that integrate automation, data tracking, and compliance, are now gaining mainstream exposure and adoption. These devices are indicative of the smart laboratory concept, and it will be interesting to see how such advancements shape the future of laboratory operations.

Automated Liquid Handling platforms that integrate sample distribution with sample prep and analysis are now a reality. Beyond NGS, these systems may be applied to ultra high-throughput label-free mass spectrometry analysis of small molecules and other complex applications. The implications for increased depth and speed in drug discovery, metabolomics, toxicology screening, and many other areas are readily apparent.