The laboratory of the future

Article of 31 January 2014 

Laboratory automation from Festo - the laboratory of the future

Who has not experienced the annoying but necessary process of having your finger pricked at the doctor's? But what actually happens to the sample once the blood has been taken? This is where analysis laboratories come into play. Here, the individual details such as the patient's name or the analyses being investigated are recorded at first, which can be accessed using a barcode on the sample carrier. The next step is the centrifuge process, during which the blood is separated into solid and liquid components by means of a fast rotating movement.

Only then is the laboratory able to check the sample for particular antibodies or viruses. In order to achieve reliable results, precisely defined laboratory procedures must be performed in a reproducible, efficient and dependable manner. Automation technology therefore plays a key role in the medical and diagnostics sector.

Modular platform for laboratory automation

A new type of laboratory platform developed by Festo shows how the future of laboratory automation may look. It reproduces a so-called ELISA test (Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay) in a realistic manner. Nine modules demonstrate the entire process. This includes the automated handling of individual sample receptacles, which are taken from or delivered to the sample carrier, the opening and closing of sample receptacles and the removal and delivery of liquids in the nanolitre range.

In this respect, the main focus is on dosage precision, as well as the modularity, flexibility and ability to extend the equipment. As well as components supplied by Festo, products from other manufacturers can also be integrated on the platform. In this way, solutions for any application can be individually created.

Modularity is a major theme in laboratory automation
Modularity is a major theme in laboratory automation

Focus on the pipetting process

Die Bearbeitung der Blutprobe läuft auf der Laborplattform vollautomatisiert ab, was am Beispiel des Pipettierprozesses deutlich wird: Zunächst bringt ein zentrales Transportsystem die Blutprobe auf einem Probenträger zum Pipettiermodul. Dort transferiert eine sehr präzise Pipette eine definierte Menge an flüssigen Blutbestandteilen aus dem Entnahmeröhrchen in jedes Analysegefäß. Anschließend werden die Analysegefäße wieder über das Zustellsystem auf der Plattform zum nachfolgenden Modul im Prozess transportiert. Gesteuert und kontrolliert wird dieser Ablauf mit einer Steuerung von Festo.

Look to the future

In future, various work modules will automatically be linked in the laboratory automation system. They will then be equipped with decentralised intelligence and hence able to carry out new analysis processes on a self-organised basis.

The modular work platform designed by Festo already ensures that the work modules are partly self-organised. Individual components feature an integrated microcontroller, which, when switched on to the overriding control system, registers with the module's functions (“I am a pipetting module”) and reports its functional status (“and I am operational”). The equipment thus demonstrates the initial steps that approach the vision of a networked production system.

You can see the Festo laboratory platform in action here: