Modularity in Motion: Combine Hardware and Software to Future-Proof Your Automated Lab

two puzzle pieces connecting with each other

Technology allows people to expand their perceptions and understanding and of what is possible. This is certainly true within the life sciences lab, where technology – and specifically lab automation technology – is constantly evolving, and users must quickly adapt. 

Adapting to change using automation can offer an opportunity to improve the way we work, helping to save both time and money, while increasing lab safety and productivity. We’ve seen this to be true in situations where labs implement automation processes to otherwise outdated work methods, and now we recognize that a huge part of adapting to the latest technology is to focus more heavily on modular distribution within the lab. 

Here, we discuss how scientists can best adapt and adopt technological advances in their labs using modular solutions to quickly adjust to the ever-evolving scientific landscape. To start, we’ll define modularity in today’s technological context. Then, we’ll take a step back and evaluate the timeline of modularity within the lab automation space and examine how we incorporate modularity into the idea of distribution. Finally, we will look at how HighRes Biosolutions has optimized the modular approach to workflows and laboratory design over time.  

lab automation equipment in action

What is modularity? 

For this article, modularity refers to a scientist’s ability to adapt and readapt their processes as their science, technology, or organization changes. 

Within the lab automation ecosystem, modularity can improve operations by helping us to stay up to date with the latest technology and use the best available devices suited to our need. This approach involves incorporating key modular elements: docks and work surfaces such as carts and tables for workspace flexibility, and nimble software for data generation and workflow analysis. Today’s focus is on the implementation of hardware and software that work seamlessly together, and HighRes Biosolutions integrates hardware and software to provide a seamless environment with device modularity, system component modularity, and sample modularity. HighRes is the only vendor in the laboratory automation space that can provide all three. 

Modularity offers several notable benefits including: 

  • Increased adaptability 
  • Cost savings over time 
  • Decreased downtime as systems are kept functional for extended periods 
  • Opportunities for organizations to use or repurpose their capital equipment when and where it is needed 

Without modularity, process automation can become stagnant and fail to progress appropriately.  

Modularity also helps scientists distribute their work across any or all their available resource pools, ensuring that the greatest numbers of samples are completed in the shortest amount of time. Flexible software such as Cellario™ also enables users to distribute new sample sets across the same resource pools on-the-fly, and this saves additional time and effort. 

The Progression of Lab Automation 

HighRes Biosolutions has used a variety of automation tools and processes to ensure lab success over time. Modularity has been at the center of it all, and this approach is now both tested and trusted by leading life science laboratories across the globe. 

To better frame our modular lab automation conversation, let’s take a quick step back to look at some of the top technology milestones across the various ages of lab automation: 

  • Simultaneous arm movement on an automated liquid handler (i.e., Beckman Biomek FX): Biomek FX revolutionized the automated liquid handling market with a dual pod device that allowed for simultaneous motion and faster sample processing, something that no other liquid handler could do at the time. These robotic arms helped increase precision and accuracy across workflows by performing repetitive tasks extremely well and saved scientists valuable time and money that could be used elsewhere. 
  • Modernized, compact automation (i.e., Velocity11): Many solutions in the lab automation market were large and bulky, taking up valuable (and expensive) lab space. The Velocity11 solution allowed scientists to perform more work in a smaller footprint, thus increasing productivity.  
  • Acoustic dispensing (i.e., Labcyte Echo): Acoustic dispensing of Labcyte Echo helped miniaturize assays, saving scientists and their organizations thousands on reagents.  
  • Modularity (i.e., HighRes MicroDock and MicroCart): This instrumental technology ushered in a new era of flexible laboratory automation, allowing hardware to literally be moved from one Work Cell to another, shared between robotic and human users, and quickly replaced when service needs dictated.  

Each of these technological advances has shaped the face of lab automation as well as the future product development plans of laboratory automation companies. Modularity is the primary means of future-proofing the automated life science lab today, and no modularity discussion is complete without looking at distribution.   

The Pillars of Lab Automation 

Today, the concept of modularity has expanded to every laboratory resource—hardware, software, and even people—and none of these can be overlooked if a lab is to reach its full potential. As science continues to evolve, so must each pillar of automation to keep pace. Let’s have a look. 

Most labs begin their journey into automation with the purchase of hardware. Depending on the type of lab, this might involve specific types of tables, carts, or other devices that are required to automate their workflows. 

Next, successful lab automation requires software, which enables scientists to take advantage of the most up-to-date cloud-based computing technology to make full use of their hardware and to drive scientific discovery. In some cases, software has become the pillar of highly technological lab environments. This makes sense as people continue to produce ever increasing data streams that must be shared and interpreted to be effective. 

Finally, truly successful automated labs recognize the power of their people. Without us, true analysis, collaboration, and distribution is not possible. At HighRes Biosolutions, we maximize each of these pillars to deliver effective, modular, and distributed automation solutions that work year after year to help achieve the scientific goals of our partners.  

Modularity and Distribution 

In addition to enabling physical lab spaces with automation hardware, we continue to evolve highly adaptable software that takes modularity beyond a single physical lab space and distributes resources across different spaces – and even geographies – as needed. 

With Cellario, for example, we can continue to improve the automated laboratory experience by recruiting all the distributed resources across an automated laboratory ecosystem to full advantage. Effective automation software understands the number of devices that are available to do work, and where each piece is located. It can then enable users to maximize these resources to do whatever work is needed, even when those resources are situated within different locations. This saves time, increases productivity and efficiency, and drives scientific discovery. 

What’s unique about this approach is that it allows us to work with the best possible tools at our disposal, whenever we want. This next-generation software also enables us to share work our work with colleagues on a global scale, independent of any barriers, and to similarly distribute lab samples with great affect. 

At HighRes Biosolutions, we closely follow the sample flow and distribution across our client workflows, adding value by providing a complete modular distribution approach to system and workflow design and execution. 

The Evolution of Nucleus™ 

As mentioned earlier, modularity provides numerous user benefits, especially as we attempt to keep up with the ever-evolving landscape of science and technology. 

As a business, HighRes Biosolutions can trace its founding in the need for modularity in lab automation with the invention of the MicroDock and MicroCart – the first dockable laboratory workspaces. The MicroDock – a device that allows users to distribute devices and other lab resources across the lab wherever and whenever they are needed – allowed effortless device distribution both within and across work cells. MicroDock technology ushered in a new era of modular automation, and it remains the cornerstone modular workflow approaches today. 

The MicroDock is a type of robotic process automation that changed people’s perspectives from inflexible to modular, also enabling users to expand on their approach to process automation. With MicroDock, users also gained the ability to share devices across client sites. 

But now, a new system offers more robust modularity capabilities than ever before. Nucleus is the latest line of standardized hardware products from HighRes Biosolutions that were designed specifically with modularity and distribution in mind to help laboratories keep pace with the evolution of science. As a modularity-focused tool, the Nucleus Table, for example, expands workflow capabilities, enabling device distribution, system componentry, and sample distribution. Nucleus promotes modularity both on its own and together with Cellario to maximize device use and sample integrity through distribution. 

Nucleus also offers several features that set it apart from other modular systems, such as “smart carts”. These features include: 

  1. Flexibility: Tables and carts are no longer static structures in your system 
  2. Modularity: Components can adjust as researchers evolve their science and capabilities 
  3. Cost Savings: Scientists can now repurpose their system components to integrate new devices, saving future integration costs 
  4. Time and Labor Savings: Requires no human assistance, as with MicroCarts, to move sample storage from one system to another 

With Nucleus, scientists can continue to automate their science at the pace of science.   

Nucleus is also primed for collaborative robotics to enter the life sciences. Collaborative robots, or “cobots”, can now either connect Work Cells via magnetic rail or travel autonomously directly to a given device to deliver and retrieve samples. In turn, this reduces infrastructure burdens, achieving a modular laboratory space free of traditional barriers or space constraints. 

Cellario Promotes Modularity & Distribution 

Cellario enables collaboration between Nucleus and other automation hardware, devices, and the integration modules of other software and data systems, such as LIMS/downstream data analysis/communication tools. The cloud-based functionality of Cellario can connect any number of laboratory automation systems, wherever they are located, to break down the workflow bottlenecks that are invariably caused when “islands of automation” develop. As an added benefit, Cellario can track and move samples between different robotic systems or devices, depending on what work that is requested. 

An often overlooked but powerful feature of Cellario is its ability to create virtual Work Cells even without the aid of laboratory automation hardware, and to include traditionally non-integrable devices. With Cellario, you can expand your automation capabilities throughout your entire lab, rather than just integrated automated systems. 

Cellario gives you full access to requesting, assigning, and scheduling your work, and viewing your data in real-time. 

Next Steps to Learn More 

Just as technology allows people to expand their understanding of what is possible, laboratory automation hardware and software that promote modular, distributed workflows expand the level of scientific inquiry that is possible. 

Implementation of laboratory automation solutions from HighRes Biosolutions into your laboratory processes will provide you with all the necessary components to ensure success while freeing you to evaluate data. 

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