Peak Analysis and Automation (PAA), Farnborough, UK, has designed a budget-friendly plate handler that works in a tight laboratory footprint, developing an innovative product that could be a game-changing development in the medical community.

The S-LAB Automated Plate Handler offers the reliability of a robotic arm in a compact footprint that can fit within a standard laboratory cabinet. (Credit: PAA)

PAA, an international organization with a United States subsidiary in Colorado, introduced the S-LAB™, which stands less than 24 in. high and has a maximum width of 20 in. The unit can handle up to 100 standard microplates and is compatible with up to 300 different laboratory instruments. The automated plate handler is designed for loading single instruments such as plate washers, bulk reagent dispensers, and plate readers.

“Many laboratories, needing to upscale their work flow, have found laboratory automation a costly and difficult option,” says Malcolm Crook, Peak’s technical director. The S-LAB eliminates the need for costly hardware and software, providing a reliable plug-and-play solution for single instrument loading. S-LAB is an entry-level automation solution designed for easy installation and use. It’s the first step to automated success.”

Price-Friendly Automation

The S-LAB Automated Plate Handler is an entry-level automation solution designed for easy installation and use. It is capable of operating stand-alone, loading plates into a wide variety of bench top instruments from any manufacturer. (Credit: PAA)

One of the problems Crook and his team at PAA sought to solve was designing an affordable automated solution. The medical industry, like every other, is using more automated equipment in many of their processes. The expense of automation, however, has been a huge impediment, especially for many smaller companies. “One of the key challenges for us,” Crook says, “was designing to price point.”

Among the critical pieces in the unit are components from igus, a German manufacturer of motion plastics. The company runs its North American operations out of Rhode Island. The igus products in the S-LAB ™ include a ZLW belt-driven linear subassembly that is used as the base and slider. The assembly is made with products from igus’ drylin® line, which are self-lubricated, run quietly, and are wear- and corrosion-resistant. They also resist dirt, dust, and humidity and are ideal for short-stroke applications.

In the S-LAB, there is no requirement for a separate PC. A controller and software are embedded within the plate handler. (Credit: PAA)

The unit also includes the igus Robolink, a rotation bearing that is used in many automated applications. igus manufactures a wide range of components for automation, including mechanical arms, wave gears, motorized joints, stepper motors, and rope drives. Components from igus have been used in building automated assemblies for a wide range of industries, from airplane manufacturing to pick-and-place assembly units.

The S-LAB also incorporates an igus energy chain in the cable tray. Energy chains from igus have been used in an assortment of applications, ranging from lightweight robotics to industrial strength cranes. The chains are easy to assemble and have a minimal bending radius. The maintenance-free features of igus components were an important part of the S-LAB, according to Crook. “An extra benefit of using igus low-cost automation is that all the moving elements are lubrication-free, which means that the equipment needs no maintenance,” Crook says. “Because there are no lubricated parts, it does not attract dust or dirt, making it easy to clean.”

Bringing Automation Down to Size

The other critical challenge for Crook and his crew was developing a unit small enough to fit on a standard lab bench or safety cabinet. The S-LAB stands 595 mm high (less than 24 in.) and has a maximum depth of 648 mm (25.5 in.).

The unit can handle up to 100 standard microplates (unlidded), and the plate exchange time is an average of 30 seconds. The microplate gripper allows plates to be presented in portrait or landscape orientation.

The unit includes an optional barcode reader that is compatible with standard barcode formats. The system is set up via a web-based application that can be run from a handheld device. The controller and software are embedded within the plate handler, so connection to a separate computer is not required to run the S-LAB plate handler. Complete system teaching is not necessary as S-LAB is supplied with its positions pre-taught, so only the instrument position needs to be taught, making installation quick and easy to set up.

“Lack of space is often a problem when it comes to lab automation,” Crook says. “With its small footprint it can easily fit a standard laboratory bench or safety cabinet.”

The unit is designed for loading single instruments, such as plate washers, bulk reagent dispensers, and plate readers. Microplates are frequently used in enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays, which are the basis of most modern medical diagnostic tests in humans and animals. A microplate has a range of sample wells in a 2:3 rectangular matrix. Each microplate holds liquid that is used for life science research. They have become a standard tool in analytical research and clinical diagnostic testing labs.

Minimizing Risk with Automation

Peak Analysis and Automation designs and builds a range of precision laboratory robots for laboratory and manufacturing applications. The company was formed by the merger in 2012 of Process Analysis & Automation in the UK and Peak Robotics in the United States.

Automation is especially critical in the medical industry, where work flows are frequently labor-intensive and the risk of error must be minimized. Reliable automated solutions, such as the S-LAB, will become especially critical as automation evolves. Designing a low-cost product will help put Peak ahead of competitors looking to tap into the medical device market.

“There were several challenges in this design,” Crook says. “We wanted to design it to a low price point. Also, PAA had not used low-volume injection molding before. Shaking out the final failure modes from the complete device was another design challenge.”

This article was written by Matt Mowry, dryLin® Product Manager for igus North America, East Providence, RI. For more information about igus dryLin products, visit here .