Why Are Manual Pipettes Still So Popular?
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Pipettes are the workhorse of liquid handling workflows and are often the most heavily used instrument in most laboratories. Electronic pipettes have been on the market for decades, and have become increasingly popular and accessible to labs of all sizes and budgets around the world. They bring reliability, accuracy and reproducibility to liquid handling steps for a wide range of applications, enhancing the quality of results. These devices also improve lab productivity and throughput, as well as eliminating manual errors and helping users to avoid musculoskeletal repetitive strain injuries. However, despite the clear advantages of electronic pipettes over their traditional manual counterparts, uptake is still surprisingly low.
Getting to the heart of the problem
What are the barriers to the widespread adoption of electronic pipettes in today’s otherwise digital age? A recent survey
Figure 1: Reasons given for not choosing electronic pipettes.1
The second most common reason given for not using electronic pipettes (31%) was simply the lack of availability in the lab. In total, only 25% of non-users showed an active preference for manual pipettes, citing factors such as lack of control, complexity and weight as possible causes of concern in adopting modern electronic instruments.
A wealth of benefits
Of the respondents that use electronic pipettes, a total of 77% said their primary motivation for using these instruments was their ability to greatly simplify and streamline tedious and repetitive workflows (Figure 2), for example, through the multi-dispensing function (47%), automated mixing (11%), and the ability to define and recall complicated multi-step protocols (19%). Electronic pipettes certainly produce significant time savings, increasing lab throughput and allowing staff to perform other vital tasks. For instance, repeat dispensing modes often allow users to fill an entire 384 multiwell plate in under 30 seconds, drastically reducing the number of pipetting steps and increasing productivity. Problematic liquids can also be handled more easily and consistently using electronic pipettes, by specifying pipetting speed or choosing reverse pipetting options.
Figure 2: Reasons given for using an electronic pipette.1
Safeguarding your health
In the survey, 17% of respondents reported the vastly improved ergonomics of electronic pipettes, as a reason for using an electronic pipette. This is a major strength considering that over three-quarters of the professionals surveyed had experienced prolonged upper limb injuries as a direct result of pipetting activities (Figure 3). In many labs, a single analyst can work with a pipette for several hours each day (Figure 4), and this relentless action often leads to musculoskeletal issues in the long run. Electronic pipettes can reduce the number of repetitive pipetting actions in a protocol and eliminate the need to twist knobs to adjust pipetting volumes. They therefore help to reduce the physical effort required for aspiration and dispensing to almost zero, decreasing the risk of injuries and subsequent sick leave. The introduction of electronic pipettes to a lab should be seen as a way of protecting personnel from common repetitive strain injuries associated with extensive manual pipetting, and of reducing downtime due to the staff absences caused.
Figure 3: Percentage of respondents reporting prolonged upper limb injuries due to pipetting.1
Investing in the future of science
The financial cost of upgrading to electronic pipettes is undoubtedly a long-term investment that rapidly generates returns throughout the laboratory in terms of time and money savings. For instance, these pipettes feature a multi-dispense mode, which makes it possible to aspirate a specified volume of liquid and dispense it into smaller aliquots. This saves time by eliminating the need to make multiple journeys to and from the reservoir, while cutting down on the likelihood of user error. In fact, 25% of respondents said they regularly dedicate 9 to 15 hours per week to manual pipetting, with 21% spending more than 15 hours per week on these labor-intensive tasks (Figure 4). Therefore, electronic pipettes have a huge potential for the optimization of lab protocols as a whole.
Figure 4: Number of hours per week spent pipetting. 1
Added to these key benefits, electronic instruments are durable and robust, reducing the time and expenditure associated with regular maintenance. They also tend to have more straightforward calibration processes than manual pipettes, making them instantly usable and highly convenient. On top of this, some electronic pipettes can be mounted onto pipetting robots to perform automated liquid handling protocols, significantly increasing walk-away time. They are additionally capable of performing the tasks of multiple other lab instruments, replacing devices such as repeaters, dilutors and titrators. These numerous production and performance gains quickly eliminate the initial cost differential between manual and electronic pipettes, generating time and cost savings for years to come.
Another possible, and underacknowledged, reason why lab professionals may be hesitant to upgrade to electronic pipettes could simply be that many of them will have initially trained on manual devices and are accustomed to them. Of course, any new skill requires some time to master, but modern electronic pipettes have been specifically designed to be intuitive, user friendly and accessible to all. This shortens the learning curve and reduces the time necessary to become a pro user. Some models even provide pre-set programs that prompt users to input basic parameters – such as the dispense volume or the number of times to be dispensed – for even easier operation, so there is no reason to be unsure of new pipetting technology.
Ready to take the plunge?
Laboratories all over the world continue to select typical manual pipettes over their innovative electronic counterparts, regardless of the potential for simplifying pipetting tasks and eliminating physical strain. The primary hurdle to this seems to be budget limitations, alongside the fact that many lab professionals have simply become accustomed to using manual pipettes throughout their training and careers. However, for numerous labs – especially those performing complex or high throughput workflows – it may be time to move on from the comforting familiarity of traditional manual pipettes to an up-to-date solution that enhances the quality of results and lab productivity, while still ultimately saving the hot commodities of time and money in the long run.
1. INTEGRA. Data on file. Published online 2022.
About the author
Tom’s role as group product manager includes responsibility for handheld electronic pipettes between one and 384 channels. With a master’s degree in business administration, Tom started in the sales department of INTEGRA Biosciences in 2014, and has since visited more than 25 countries acting as a liquid handling expert. Now settled into a product management role, Tom is involved with the innovation of new products and the improvement of existing ones. He is responsible for the company’s electronic pipette range, and has seen pipetting performed in every way possible in the field.