It's great when things run quickly: 20 minutes per extraction process and a new plate every 2.5 minutes – the Dutch company Synchron Lab Automation, in cooperation with Festo, has developed a small automated factory for DNA extraction. As a result, customers in the seed industry can collect DNA from up to 40,000 samples per day.
"We have indeed built a very small factory," explains Niels Kruize, responsible for business development at Synchron Lab Automation. "Recently, one of our customers 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 before.'"
The process, which runs on the machine, is used in the agricultural industry for plant breeding. DNA is extracted from shredded plant material. Components from Festo carry out important functions in all phases. The process begins with a microwell plate magazine which accommodates up to 400 plates – 200 for input and 200 for output. Bert Baas, key account manager at Festo explains: "This is a perfect example of a combination of industrial and laboratory automation". The machine's hardware is divided 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 actuators. The plates are continuously moved and positioned in the pipetting, rinsing and washing stations.
Right from the start, Festo provided the Synchron developers with intensive support. Bert Baas reports: "Our automation experts supported us during the entire development of the extraction system. For example, they suggested using the new CPX-E unit to create real added value. They used the unit in this project before it was actually available on the market."
Identifying, transporting, washing and aspirating: components from Festo carry out important functions in all phases of the process.
The extraction machine runs for eight hours in continuous operation and can also be operated for 24 hours without any problems in case of increased demand. Its capacity is already eight times greater than that of other alternatives currently available on the market.
The bar code reader SBSI scans all the microwell plates at the start of a run. Electric axes EGC, in combination with a quarter turn actuator DRRD and a pneumatic gripper DHPS, pick up the microwell plates and place them on carriers. These move through the various stations on a transport system.
Metallic microspheres are added to separate the DNA from other material. The DNA attaches itself to the microspheres while the rest of the material floats in the microwell plates. Liquid is added to the microwell plates at several washing stations and aspirated again. The pipetting head is lowered by an electric slide EGSC during this process. After rinsing, clean DNA remains in the microwell plate. It is fed to the final processing step, namely DNA extraction, via the transport system.
Handling the pipetting head for extracting the DNA is the responsibility of electric axes EGC in combination with an electric slide EGSL. Each plate has 96 samples. The extraction process takes a total of twenty minutes. A new plate is started every 2.5 minutes.
The machine has a serial and modular structure, and operates almost entirely without any switching delays. The CPX-E and valve manifolds VTUG with IO-Link® are used to control the system. CPX-E was developed as a remote I/O system or PLC with EtherCAT master controller and motion controller to ensure a simple combination of the control unit with the electrical actuators.
Derk Wilten, the owner and Managing Director of Synchron Lab Automation, explains how the cooperation with Festo came about: "In the past, we only focused on a solution concept, and then got a partner to create the solution. That's because we're originally a software company. When Niels Kruize joined the company, he told us that we should develop turnkey solutions ourselves. He was totally convinced about that. Niels Kruize is responsible for business development at Synchron Lab Automation. He used to work in England where he collaborated closely with Festo. On the basis of his positive experience, he suggested launching our first 'in-house designed product' with engineering know-how and components from Festo."
Niels Kruize explains: "Festo is a leading company with a global network of component suppliers and global service and support. Festo's experts helped us with the design and shared their knowledge with us. It was very valuable that they knew different markets and operate there. Synchron supplies customers all over the world. Therefore, we are pleased to cooperate with a partner who can deliver parts in Germany just as quickly as in Singapore." Derk Wilton was quickly won over: "Festo uses exactly the same operating methods as we do. It is very reassuring to work with a partner who believes in the project."
An effective team (from left to right): Niels Kruize (Synchron), Bert Baas (Festo) and Derk Wilten (Synchron)
Niels Kruize is pleased that his confidence in the partnership has been confirmed. "It offers us enormous added value. The partnership has been truly cooperative from both sides. This project is a completely new undertaking for both companies – and communication technology is also new for us. We learn from each other and we're looking to the future to see what the next step will be." Bert Baas: "We discuss new technologies with Synchron and anticipate the possibilities they offer. That provides new impulses for Festo."
Synchron has been developing solutions for laboratory automation since 1985 and specializes in the automated handling of liquids, tubes and plates. In recent years, Synchron has added de-novo design and construction of dedicated automated platforms for the agribio industry to its portfolio. These include seed picking, germination, seed health tests and DNA cleaning systems. The Experimate™ software platform from Synchron offers a user-friendly interface and controls all systems and connected modules from Synchron – from the LIMS connection to the automated workplace.