Precision and reliability in automated liquid handling

Extremely high sample throughput rates

Precision and reliability in automated liquid handling

If there’s one thing the corona pandemic has taught us, it’s that laboratories place tremendous importance on high sample throughput rates. Even with highly qualified laboratory personnel, this demand can no longer be met. There’s no getting round the automation of laboratory processes. That’s why MolGen in the Netherlands has developed PurePrep TTR, which can prepare 320 patient samples per hour for molecular processing. And the Dutch company uses laboratory-specific automation technology from Festo.

Rapid growth

During the corona pandemic, laboratories were ramped up on a large scale because high sample throughput rates were absolutely essential. "This is where MolGen got involved, and in a very short time, within 2 to 3 years, we've grown from five to currently over 130 employees," explains Niels Kruize, CEO of MolGen and one of the three founders of the company, making reference to branch location in the Netherlands, as well as the UK and the USA.

“When we founded MolGen, our primary field of business was high rates of sample throughput in genetic engineering laboratories for animals and plants. We had a lot of knowledge about the chemicals that were needed for this,” explains Kruize.

Recent developments include the PurePrep TTR handling unit. It’s used for automated handling of liquids at high throughput rates by quickly, accurately and reliably transferring them from sample vials to microwell plates. “The automated PurePrep TTR has a throughput rate of 320 samples per hour,” says Kruize. Even laboratory assistants with good training and lots of professional experience are unable to match this tremendous throughput rate,” he adds.

Laboratory staff for more demanding tasks

Despite the expert skills of trained laboratory staff, errors can nevertheless occur which lead to contamination. The individual steps of grasping a sample, unscrewing the cap, putting the cap down, removing the liquid with a pipette and transferring it to a microwell plate are time-consuming and cumbersome. The sample vials and the plates are labelled with barcodes which are read by scanners in order to monitor and track the samples throughout the entire work process. “Automating these process steps makes it possible to deploy highly qualified laboratory personnel much more effectively for more demanding tasks, such as analyzing test results.”

Dependable cooperation

“I’ve already been working together with Festo for ten years, especially with Festo’s national company in the Netherlands,” reports the CEO from MolGen. He describes this collaboration as exceptional, because Festo is always prepared to do more than just sell standard products. “Their Innovation Unit caters to our requirements and provides us with modules for pilot projects. This was the case with the CPX-E controller and now again with the Magic Box, as we call it – the decentralized pressure and vacuum generator PGVA,” says Kruize and adds: “We were among the first, maybe even the very first, to use it.”

Decentralized pressure and vacuum supply

“This is more or less hidden in the machine housing,” explains Bert Baas, Dutch sales engineer for laboratory automation at Festo. The PGVA integrates compressor, air preparation including filter system, reservoir and electronic pressure and vacuum control in the smallest of spaces. “In order to meet huge demand during the corona pandemic, we turned the pressure and vacuum generator over to MolGen while it was still in the technical approval phase,” reports Baas.

“The PGVA reveals the passion for automation demonstrated by Festo’s various teams, which results in successful collaborative solutions for us. This builds confidence in the supplier’s ability to produce prototypes and systems much faster and more flexibly,” concludes the MolGen CEO.

Pressure-controlled pipetting

Pipetting head DHOE is used for the pipetting process. It can transport extremely small pipetting volumes of down to 5 µl with outstanding precision. With an open pipetting system and pipetting head DHOE for the easy transport of liquids, it is possible to configure the most important pipetting functions based on requirements, and to expand them flexibly – the system is also compatible with large pipette tips. Thanks to its outstanding chemical resistance, the pipetting head can be used for a wide range of liquids with varying viscosities.

“The pipetting process can be adjusted very precisely thanks to the pressure-controlled operating principle; this isn’t possible with a syringe-based system. The expertise is clearly in liquid level detection”, says laboratory automation specialist Kruize enthusiastically.

Sample handling with precise level detection

The first robot arm of the PurePrep TTR, which is equipped with two SCARA robots, uses a pneumatic gripper to pick up a sample vial by the cover and places it in a position where the cover can be removed. After opening, the second robot arm uses pipetting head DHOE to transport the liquid from the sample vial to the microwell plate. “The pipetting system is even capable of precisely determining the liquid level in a sample vial by using high-precision pressure and vacuum adjustment via the PGVA”, explains Bastiaan Ebbelaar, application specialist at MolGen. For Ebbelaar, level detection is the system’s most fascinating feature. Concurrent to liquid handling, the first robot arm closes the open sample vial and returns it to the rack. Then it continues with the next sample vial.

About MolGen

MolGen is a global total solution provider of DNA/RNA technology, with hardware, reagents, consumables, software and services human and animal diagnostics, and the agriculture and biotech industries. The company's automation solutions are developed according to the specific needs of customers and always take into account the latest state of the art technology in life sciences.