A choice to be made
When the idea of automating the laboratory function surfases we are happy to assist you in your considerations and evaluations. There are several issues that have to be considered, such as which parts of the sample preparation does it make sence to auomate at this particular site and how can it bring most value.
As the reasons for automating varies from requirements to improve quality to reduce health and safety issues to reduce cost, each project is different.
Once it has been decided to automate the layout has to be considered. A distinction can be made between two main categories of automated laboratories:
Automated equipment systems: Laboratories in which the sample preparation units and the analysis equipment are automated and linked together in a linear configuration by conventional transport belts or alike. This approach is also referred to as QCX/AutoPrep.
Robotics systems: Laboratories in which automation is achieved by robotics. The equipment units serviced by the robot(s) may be fully automated, semi-automatic or manual. This approach is also referred to as QCX/RoboLab.
These types of sample preparation concepts provide in principle equally high quality in sample preparation and analysis. Quality not only meets the performance of “the very best laboratory technician”; it is highly consistent over time. Thus there are no fluctuations from shift to shift in analytical levels due to small differences in the practical procedures undertaken by human operators. In some project the two concepts may be combined to give the best solution.
Another distinction can be made between central laboratories and at-line or satellite laboratories. For first mentioned concept all samples are brought to a central – typically large - labororatory facility, where a part of the sample preparation and anlysis tasks are fully automated. It is typically the high priority 24-7 samples from a continuosly operating process which are automatically prepared and analysed. For the at-line or satellite laboratory approach a smaller dedicated lab facility is installed in a process section very close to the sampling point(s) for high priority samples.
Container solutions: Laboratories in which sample preparation and automation is done in a selfcontained unit. The container solution can be placed directly in the process and can be relocated if needed. This approach is also referred to as QCX/RoboLab.
The choice of automation concept depends on the complexity of a particular laboratory method, the volume of sample throughput, the cycle time requirements, the quality control objectives and of course the cost of a given solution. In general the automated equipment solution is to be preferred for high sample throughput and/or low complexity. F.ex for a low complexity “X-ray powder preparation only” configuration this means in that a linear type arrangement is the more cost effective of the two concepts.
Robotics solutions are preferable if the procedures are more complex or if more tests are to be made on the same sample. This is because the robotics approach requires less adaptation of the requirement serviced and less expensive automation of a wider range of standard laboratory components. Another factor in favour of the robotics concept is its high flexibility in terms of future modification. In the past, robotics solutions were recommended, when several equipment units were to be operated or there was a higher preparation complexity. However, over the years robots have become steadily less expensive, making the robotics concept more attractive economically also for smaller project configurations.
The choice of automation concept depends on the complexity of a particular analysis method, the volume of the sample throughput and the overall automation concept desired.
Typical key decision criteria to consider are :
- Capacity and complexity of methods
- Sample types and material properties
- Analytical requirements
- Equipment location, building lay-out
- Current and future labour costs
- Daily operation and maintenance implications
- Data processing requirements
- Flexibility towards future needs