Rapid advancement in life sciences research is typically driven by technology that maximizes assay speed and throughput. The explosion in genomics research created by widespread adoption of next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology is just one example.
Many laboratories are realizing significant gains in efficiency, thanks to automated liquid-handling technology that delivers accurate and precise dispensing of volumes in the nanoliter range. The popularity of modular systems that can be linked together indicates that researchers require flexibility as well as speed.
Researchers are turning to automation for a variety of reasons. “Frankly, people who spend 6–10 years to get an advanced degree don’t want to get stuck pipetting at the bench,” says Holger Pils, business unit leader at Hamilton Robotics. “They want to work with their brains, not with their hands.” Pils observes that automation frees up time for other duties—such as writing papers, giving talks, or designing the next experiment.
Automation can add value to even the smallest laboratories, adds Alisa Jackson, senior global marketing manager, genomic solutions, Beckman Coulter Life Sciences. According to Jackson, the demand for automation is expanding to universities and many clinical research organizations.
Cost savings are a significant factor in deciding to automate, maintains David Herbst, product manager, instruments and software, Lonza. Other considerations include “reducing human error, reducing exposure to radioactive materials and other chemicals, and improving ergonomic safety.”
Most laboratory procedures that require dispensing and mixing of liquids are amenable to automation. Jackson notes that Beckman customers are automating many common procedures, such as PCR and qPCR, nucleic acid purification, and both Sanger and next-generation sequencing. The benefits of automation are especially evident in labor-intensive procedures such as immunoassays.
“We also see growing numbers of researchers with interest in automating DNA cloning methods for synthetic biology applications,” observes Jeremy Lambert, director of automation and liquid handling, PerkinElmer.
Whether selecting a workstation or designing a custom system, usability is a key factor. Carsten Buhlmann, Ph.D., global product manager automation at Eppendorf, explains, “In a scientific environment, you will find a diverse user group. Therefore, it is essential that the learning curve be short.”