Machine vision is the art of using computer-controlled cameras to maintain high levels of quality control in industrial processes. In manufacturing, parts produced are often automatically imaged and analyzed to determine if the product produced is acceptable. Often, feedback is associated with this procedure such that if an unacceptable part is encountered it may be automatically removed from the production line.
The acquisition and analysis of the image(s) can occur quickly (less than one second), which makes this technology applicable in industries where parts are produced on the order of seconds.
Machine vision has replaced human inspectors in many settings for obvious reasons. Automated inspection systems can run 24 hours per day, inspect complex parts quickly, and offer no bias as opposed to the human eye.
High-throughput screening (HTS) is traditionally recognized as a research activity, but in recent years, the development of more robust assays and instrumentation has largely industrialized this process. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies commonly have dedicated groups within their infrastructure that routinely perform HTS; groups that are actively seeking QC strategies to deliver shorter project completion times, more efficient use of reagents, and the generation of high-quality data.
One such quality-control strategy is the automatic calculation of data and its comparison to operator-defined acceptable levels. If the data falls outside of a predefined acceptable level, automatic notification to the operator is generated, typically via e-mail to a handheld wireless device.
HTS assays can vary in length from minutes to days. When assay times are longer, the automatic calculation of data as a process-control strategy may be useful but not sufficient to maintain an efficient process, especially since data collection occurs at the end of the process. For example, if an assay is five hours long and improper liquid additions occur within the first hour, that improper dispense could occur for up to four hours causing many units of production to be produced out of specification until the notification to the operator occurs.
The application of machine vision technology to HTS offers the ability to quality control this process in real time, allowing operators to respond to improper conditions in a timely manner conserving reagents, plates, and maintaining high-quality data.
Vision Inspection Systems
Scientists at Kalypsys and Merck developed a vision inspection system (VIS-1) (Figure 1) that can image a 1,536-well microtiter plate post dispense and evaluate if wells on the plate are empty or if there are droplets of fluid residing on top of the plate.