In December 2007, Agilent Technologies acquired Velocity11, a supplier of automated liquid-handling and laboratory robotic instruments for the life science market. “Our goal in the life sciences is to put together workflows that solve customer problems,” says Nick Roelofs, vp of Agilent’s Life Science Systems and Solutions Unit. “Together, we can offer customers a comprehensive set of workflow solutions with increased levels of automation.”
As a solutions provider, Agilent attempts to understand a customer’s process from sample preparation to data acquisition. For example, it considers ways to connect a serum sample with a data endpoint, or a sample of dirt with a contaminant, or a food product with a pesticide.
“How a customer handles a sample all the way across that horizon is a workflow,” explains Roelofs. Agilent strives to find applications for its products in some or all of the workflow steps, and automation plays a major role. “If we can automate the front end of sample preparation, then we can accelerate the workflow,” Roelofs says.
Velocity11 brings attributes that play into two key aspects of automation—throughput and precision, he adds. Researchers working in high-throughput environments want highly precise, rapid, and repetitive elements that can be automated to generate high-quality data.
Agilent also sees an opportunity to use the expertise of Velocity11 in situations that require precision, but not high-throughput automation, such as improving human error without necessarily accelerating the number of samples analyzed. “That’s an area where we plan to use the modular instrument assembly strength of Velocity11,” mentions Roelofs.
One application of precision without automation can be found in the manufacturing of the drug heparin, an anticoagulant. China supplies more than half the world’s supply of heparin, extracted from pig intestines at small, family-run workshops.
Contaminated batches periodically cause deaths or allergic reactions in some patients who are given heparin to prevent blood clots during surgery or kidney dialysis. Safer automated techniques are needed to test the supply of raw materials at the source of origin. Giving mom-and-pop workshops a liquid chromatography machine is not the answer, since they are not trained in sophisticated sample preparation. An alternative could be an automated instrument that makes the necessary serial dilutions and performs other steps. “That’s an example of a precision opportunity that is not a traditional automation type,” adds Roelofs.