Cooperation in laboratory automation

Getting more effective solutions faster and more efficiently

Dutch company Synchron Lab Automation developed an automated DNA extraction system with very high throughput by working very closely together with Festo. As a result, customers in the seed industry can collect DNA from up to 40,000 samples per day.

Derk Wilten, owner and Managing Director of Synchron Lab Automation, explains how the cooperation with Festo came about: "In the past, we only focused on the concept of a solution, and then got a partner to build it. This is because we are originally a software company." When Niels Kruize joined the company, he told us that he strongly believed that we should be building turnkey solutions ourselves. Niels Kruize is responsible for business development at Synchron Lab Automation. He used to work in England, where he worked closely with Festo. Based on his positive experience, he suggested launching our first product designed in-house with engineering know-how and components from Festo.”

A partner who believes in the project

Niels Kruize explains: "Festo is a leading company with a global network of component suppliers and global service and support. They helped us with the design and shared their knowledge with us. The fact that they are active in different markets was very valuable." Synchron supplies customers all over the world and is therefore very happy to have a partner who can deliver parts in Germany just as quickly as in Singapore. Derk Wilton was quickly convinced: "Festo uses the same working methods we do. It's very reassuring to work with a partner who believes in the project."

Intensive, continuous support

Festo provided the Synchron developers with intensive support right from the start. Key Account Manager Bert Baas from Festo explains: "Our automation experts supported us throughout the entire development of the extraction machine. For example, they suggested using the new CPX-E unit to provide real added value. They used the module in this project before it was even available on the market."

Laboratory automation inspired by Industry 4.0

Derk Wilten: "In our industry sector production is not 24/7, which can be attributed to the components and the way solutions are developed. But Festo is committed to Industry 4.0, optimum availability, service and preventive maintenance." The extraction machine now runs continuously for eight hours, but can also be operated non-stop for 24 hours. Its capacity is already eight times greater than other options currently available on the market.

Niels Kruize comments: "We have actually created a very small factory. One of our clients recently made a priceless statement. He said: 'This is so beautiful and at the same time so simple, I just don't understand why nobody invented it earlier.'" Bert Baas from Festo adds: "It's a perfect example of a combination of industrial and laboratory automation." The machine hardware is subdivided into functions, each of which is designed to be as simple and efficient as possible. The small factory is equipped with serial instead of parallel drives. The plates are continually moved and positioned through the pipetting, rinsing and washing stations.

How the DNA extraction machine works

The process that takes place in the machine is used in the agricultural industry for plant breeding. The DNA is extracted from shredded plant material. Festo components carry out important functions in all phases of the extraction process. The process starts with a carrier that can hold up to 400 microwell plates – 200 for input and 200 for output.

Identification and transport: The bar code reader SBSI scans all microwell plates at the beginning of the process. Electric axes EGC, combined with a semi-rotary drive DRRD and a gripper DHPS, pick up the microwell plates and place them on carriers that are moving through the different stations on a transport system.

Rinsing: Metallic microspheres are added to separate the DNA from the other material. The DNA attaches itself to the microspheres while the rest of the material floats in the microwell plates. Liquid is added to and removed from the microwell plates at several washing stations. The pipetting head is lowered by an electric slide EGSC during this process. After rinsing, clean DNA remains in the microwell plate and is fed via the transport system to the final processing step, DNA extraction.

Extraction: Electric axes EGC combined with an electric slide EGSL take care of positioning the pipetting head for extracting the DNA. Each plate contains 96 samples and takes twenty minutes from start to finish, with a new plate being started 2.5 minutes.

The machine has a serial and modular design and has almost no switching delays. The CPX-E and valve terminals VTUG with IO-Link® are used to control the system. The CPX-E has been developed as a remote I/O system or PLC with EtherCAT master controller and motion controller. When combined with electric drives and controllers from Festo, this is a real innovation .

Pushing the boundaries – a joint achievement

Niels Kruize is very pleased that his confidence in the partnership has turned out to be justified. "It provides us with tremendous added value. Both parties regard the cooperation as a real sign of partnership. This project is a completely new undertaking for both companies – and communication technology is also new for us. We are learning from each other and looking to the future for what the next step could be." Bert Baas: "We are discussing new technologies with Synchron and are excited about the opportunities they offer."

February 2019