The goal of achieving a high throughput is familiar enough in manufacturing settings, but it also matters every bit as much in drug discovery labs, where researchers need to screen thousands of chemical compounds. Autosamplers can help improve the speed and accuracy of this screening process—by robotically shuttling and dispensing samples as they make their way between various analytical instruments and related pieces of sample processing equipment. Now Parker Hannifin's Life Sciences Business Unit has come up with a new way to make robotic sample handling even faster.
The extra speed comes from a unique electromechanical design that targets a bottleneck associated with previous autosamplers. These robotic portion of these systems often stands idle while samples are readied for and sent through the analytical processes, according to Mike Portela, manager of Parker's Life Sciences unit. “The motion system spends a lot of time just sitting there and waiting,” he says.
Parker engineers got rid of that waiting time by decoupling the robot that moves the samples from the microfluidics system that dispenses them. “What we did was cut the cords to the motion system,” Portela says. Parker engineers created an autosampling system around self-contained dispensers, called Smart Syringes, that operate without electric or fluid connections to the rest of the robotic handling system.
With each Smart Syringe acting independently, groups of syringes can perform their operations in parallel once they have been put in place by the autosampler's three-axis robot. As a result, throughput increases by as much five times versus systems where operations take place sequentially, Portela estimates.
Parker's Smart Syringe dispensers measures just 8-mm in diameter and weigh 26 grams. Yet each one contains its own microprocessor, memory, RFID chip, drive, gearbox and motor capable of drawing and injecting sub-microliter samples.Portela won't say much about the DC-brushless motors that Parker uses, other than to note that they have a six-mm diameter and generate enough torque to inject or dispense at 300 psi. Portela places the system's precision at better than 0.5 % CV.
Thanks to the embedded intelligence provided by the microprocessor, the syringes actually control their own workflows. “You can download a program into the syringe so it knows what to do at each station. The syringe drives the operations,” Portela says, adding that the system uses proprietary event-driven control algorithms to govern the liquid handling tasks.
Other kinds of intelligence have been built into the Smart Syringes as well. For example, the drive system can detect stalls. And the RFID chips, which are integrated into the syringes’ replaceable glass barrels, can be used to store calibration or other data related to individual samples. Portela says that the stall detection and ability to attach data to the sample itself both offer important quality control benefits.
Through intended for drug discovery applications, the Smart Syringe may also see use in related lab automation applications such as liquid handling, blood chemistry analysis, and combinatorial chemistry.