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Advancing Robotic and Automation Technologies to Improve Human Health

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Robotic and automation technologies are advancing at a staggering rate, and the introduction of collaborative robots has fundamentally changed the way scientists coexist with automated systems, making interactions with complex pieces of machinery safer and easier.

Ira Hoffman, CEO at HighRes Biosolutions® tells us about the company’s mission to “improve human health through life science robotics”. Ira discusses the types of laboratory best suited to automation and explains the economic value of implementing robotics and automation in the lab.

Laura Lansdowne (LL): Could you tell me about your professional background, and for our readers who aren’t familiar with HighRes Biosolutions, a little about the company history and mission?

Ira Hoffman (IH):
I started my career at Merck. I got invited to a job interview, I walked into one of the labs and I saw robots trying to find cures for diseases. I knew at that exact moment, that that's what I wanted to do with my career.

It was unbelievable. I remember thinking “I love tech, I love computer science” and just the idea that you can do those two things and improve the quality of someone's life – it was such a powerful combination. I guess that really does mirror HighRes’ company mission to “improve human health through life science robotics”.

HighRes has been around for approximately 14 years and was founded by a gentleman called Lou Guarracina. Originally the primary focus was to build “flexible integrated systems for lab automation” and we began with a background in high-throughput screening, compound management and we had been performing a function at various pharma companies.

We really identified some key needs in automation that didn't exist at the time. So, the founding principle of the company was about flexibility and modularity of operations. Robots have been used in the life sciences industry for around 15–20 years. But they were all pretty rigid systems consisting of larger metal frames bolted or welded together. They were really static configurations. 

We developed a product called MicroDock™. This concept involves an array of MicroDocks surrounding a central robot. What this design lets you do is, very quickly and easily exchange the devices that surround the central robot, meaning you can simply reconfigure your system depending on its purpose, you can also keep your system up-to-date with the latest technology advances – there really are a lot of advantages to having that kind of flexibility. As new technology is developed, it's very easy to get a new cart and just plug it in.

Along the way, we identified a lot of areas where certain product types or product features can be beneficial. By doing integrations we have seen a lot of componentry types, and have identified what people like, what they don't like, and importantly what they need. So, we've been building instruments as opportunities for addressing those challenges present themselves.

Whilst we started with the concept of a central robot, and the core software and scheduling software that runs those robots, we've also taken on a lot of the automated storage devices, incubators, freezers that sit on these systems.

Our latest product launch was approximately three years ago with the automated liquid handler Prime™. This product was a game changer for us, as it essentially combines robotics, in a vertical configuration for lab automation, with a liquid handler. We’ve been building out software as we go to make running different types of complex machinery very easy and intuitive.

LL: Could you touch on the economic value of implementing robotics and automation in the lab?

People measure economic value in different ways. I think one of the primary ways that people see it is in lieu of labor, in lieu of scientists, who are, typically, PhD level scientists running experiments manually, you can make an investment in automation platform and it will run 24-7. So that's a common way people look at the return on investment, the cost calculation between scientists manually performing experiments and an automated platform.

But having and using automation is also beneficial in other ways, for example robots don’t take lunch breaks and they give you consistency in timing. In science being consistent and repeatable is very important. Once an automated platform gets the process defined, it's going to do the same thing over and over, there are a lot less variables compared to doing the process manually. It won't prioritize an urgent email or get caught in a meeting that overruns leading to a delayed experiment.

It comes down to consistency in data, and consistently in processing – it is tough to measure the exact value of that, but automation makes a big difference.

Another key piece, where it adds value is in direct data integration. Instead of having someone program methods, we can actually interpret instructions of what to do and when information is produced. Traditionally, you would have a scientist pop open an Excel file, copy some cells, run some calculations, but a lot of that is manual, and potentially, error prone. An automated system connects that whole process, meaning you're going to have the right calculations and all of your inventory will be tracked appropriately. So, it becomes a well-connected seamless process from planning to executing.

LL: Do you believe every lab can benefit from automation? Is there a type of laboratory that is best suited to automation or that you think can benefit from automation the most?

Sometimes it's about throughput, where people just have a very large number of samples that they need to process and that's the classic application of why you need automation. Others have very long run processes, they may not have a lot of operations to perform, but they may have a lot to keep track of. For example, if you have an incubator with 50 different cell lines growing in it, and rather than a person keeping track of what to take out and when, you can take advantage of software to control that schedule. So, there is definitely value in many different labs – all labs is a pretty bold statement.

But I guess it really comes down to how you define automation. Would you consider an automated pipettor lab automation? I think we're getting to a point where that spectrum and the entry level for automation in a lab is getting more and more accessible. There are an increasing number of lower costs, DIY-er type automation that opens the market to many more users based on price.

It’s just like technology that you couldn't imagine 20 years ago – a few years ago the thought that you could own a phone that would fit in your pocket would have been unimaginable. And now we have a “miniature computer” and unprecedented access to information stored right in your pocket. A similar thing is happening with lab automation, it just keeps getting smarter – smarter devices, smarter components, that feed into the research.

LL: The term “collaborative robot” is used frequently when describing HighRes liquid handling and automation solutions. What does this term mean and why is it important?

A collaborative robot is something that lets a scientist coexist with hardware and automation without any concerns for risk or safety. The reason why that's important is that these platforms run complex experiments. And we have to remember that these customers are scientists and they want to be able to see how these devices are performing their actions, they want to monitor the equipment. They should be able to walk up to a robot and be able to see what exactly is going on. With a collaborative robot, you can literally just grab it press a button and drag it to a point and teach it. What was once a typically really complex interaction with a system, has now been distilled down to be very basic “drag and drop” process, even at a physical level. The collaborative robot really means breaking down the barriers for scientists to access their science on large automation, and let's make sure that the interaction with a really complex piece of machinery is as simple as just guiding it by its wrist.

There's no requirement for guarding with our platforms, you can coexist safely. Collaborative robotics really embodies the spirit of how we develop our products – the products and the experience have to blend with what the researcher is trying to do on a daily level. 

LL: The term lab of the future is used a lot. What does it look like to you?

That’s a good question. I think an awareness of context is a very important thing. So, whether it's a robot or a person – they should have access to more connected information. Definitely the ability to capture more data streams would be beneficial, whether it is information about temperature, humidity, etc. you get additional data on what's going on.

Certainly, miniaturization will continue to grow. The Internet of Things will see more processes moving towards the cloud. Simplification of user interfaces (UIs) is another area that has the potential to develop. At the moment everything has a computer in front of it. I predict that in time computers will begin to be replaced by phone-like UIs capable of driving the automation, and communicating with the device directly, feeding information straight to the cloud. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will continue to be coupled to automation. We’ll also see a more closed-loop automation type of processing.

Ira Hoffman, was speaking to Laura Elizabeth Lansdowne, Science Writer for Technology Networks.