Relieving the repetition

Installation of robots enables research scientists to improve efficiency at GlaxoSmithKline's UK r&d centre

Traditionally, a lot of the experimental testing performed in drug discovery research laboratories has involved extremely precise, but repetitive, manual handling, mixing and measuring operations.

This prompted GlaxoSmithKline to look into the options available to further automate some of its r&d processes to improve operational speed and efficiency at its Harlow, UK r&d centre. Eventually the company selected Stäubli RX six axis robots to provide the precise sequence of controlled movements that would replicate its existing manual operations. Development of the automation systems at the Harlow facility is managed by Dr Alan Stanley, senior investigator, Technology Development. Dr Stanley had previously encountered Stäubli RX robots at work in several drug discovery and cell culture applications, and had been impressed with their speed of operation and precision. His main concern was whether RX robots would be able to cope with the often rapidly changing demands of the research lab environment and, moreover, be acceptable to the research chemists as a bench-top tool they would use to improve their efficiency. Dr Stanley said: "Our aim was to relieve the research scientists from the need to spend time on repetitive lab bench processes such as weighing, mixing and handling. This would release them to devote more time to evaluate and review the results from their research tasks and to plan the detail of their future experimental work programmes. We wanted the robot to be used as a flexible tool, not as a solution."

Working group established A working group was established to assist GSK in developing the required automation systems. The Warwick Manufacturing Group, based at the International Manufacturing Centre on the campus of the University of Warwick, provided the automation expertise and a location for the experimental cell. Aitken Scientific from Thame, specialists in writing software for laboratory automation, joined the team with the remit to create a user interface that would be easy to use, flexible and acceptable to the researchers who were not conversant with the operation of automation systems. Previous automation in GSK labs had mainly been belt driven, Cartesian type robotics capable of working to an accuracy of 2mm or 3mm, sufficient when filling a 9mm diameter vial. These systems tended to be dedicated to a single process and were not adaptable and certainly not capable of working with test plates containing up to 1,536 wells with well diameters of only 100µm. A step change in accuracy was required. Stäubli RX robots operate to a repeatability level of 20/30µm and are capable of working with the latest lab testing equipment, including the "lab on a chip" developments using high-density micro-channel test plates. A simple weighing operation was selected as the application on which the base system and user interface software would be developed. Two Stäubli RX60 robots were installed, one in the experimental cell at Warwick and the second back at the labs in Harlow, both operating in cleanroom conditions. The aim was to have a demonstration cell operating in Harlow for evaluation by the research chemists. The user interface would be critical. Aitken's approach was to present a simple icon-based series of screens on which the researcher could select the specific testing operation required and finely adjust the parameters as necessary. The same interface would be used for all types of test, building user confidence and experience of using the automation system. The weighing demonstration work cell replicates a typical operation from the Harlow labs. It requires the robot to pick up an empty vial from the holding matrix and place it onto the scale for weighing. The tool head is then changed from a gripper to a liquid dispensing nozzle and a measured amount of reagent is inserted. The vial is then re-weighed to determine the weight of reagent added and returned to the holding matrix.

Errors effectively eliminated A DVT vision system is attached to the robot's arm to recognise any empty slots in the vial container or other irregularities. This system has reduced the time to weigh a plate of 96 vials from 1.5 hours down to just 10 minutes. Error rates are effectively eliminated taking a degree of doubt out of the research process. The robot performs all tests consistently, significantly improving the validity of the research results. The speed of testing has been increased and the robot's precision enables the latest micro-channel test plates to be used. This brings the additional cost benefit of reducing the usage of some very expensive reagents. Dr Stanley sees this demonstration six axis robot system as the first of many required at the Harlow R&D facility, which is being further expanded. This flexible method of automation, built around the versatile Stäubli RX robot, is set to become standard GSK lab equipment.