How Modularity Enables Change in Technology
Technology allows us to expand our perceptions and understanding of what is possible. This is especially true for life science labs, where technology—and specifically lab automation technology—is constantly evolving and driving new innovations.
Adapting to change with automation offers us an opportunity to improve the way we work; helping to save both time and money, while increasing lab safety and productivity. We have seen this to be true in situations where labs implement automation processes to otherwise outdated work methods, and we recognize that a major aspect of adapting to the latest technology is to focus more heavily on modular distribution within the lab.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 will define modularity in today’s technological context. Then, we will take a step back and evaluate the timeline of modularity within the lab automation space and examine how we can 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.
Why Modularity is Critical for Lab Automation
Today, the concept of modularity has expanded to every laboratory resource—hardware, software, and even team members— 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 as well. Let’s have a look.
Most labs begin their automation journey with 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, a successful lab automation requires software. Lab automation software enables scientists to take advantage of the most up-to-date cloud-based computing technology to make full use of their hardware. In turn, this accelerates scientific discovery and innovation.
In some cases, software has become the pillar of highly technological lab environments. This is understandable, as labs that produce increasing amounts of data will similarly require increasingly powerful software to continue to be effective.
Finally, truly successful automated labs recognize the power of people. Without team members that are experienced, engaged, and fully trained on devices and software, authentic analysis, collaboration, and distribution is simply not possible.
At HighRes Biosolutions, we maximize each of these tenets of automation to deliver effective, modular, and distributed automation solutions that work year after year to help our partners achieve their scientific goals.
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 labs use the best available devices for their needs as well as staying up to date with the latest technology.
This approach involves incorporating key modular elements such as:
- Docks and work surfaces such as carts and tables for workspace flexibility
- Nimble software for data generation and workflow analysis
Today’s focus is on implementing hardware and software that work seamlessly together. This is where HighRes Biosolutions excels. By integrating hardware and software, our Nucleus® solutions become harmonious environments with device modularity, system component modularity, and sample modularity. In fact, HighRes is the only laboratory automation vendor that can provide modularity in all three facets.
How Will Modularity Benefit Labs?
Modularity offers several notable benefits, including:
- Increased adaptability
- Cost savings over time
- Decreased downtime as systems remain functional over extended periods
- Opportunities for organizations to use or repurpose capital equipment when and where it is needed
Without modularity, process automation can become stagnant and fail to scale or develop properly.
Modularity also helps scientists distribute their work across any or all available resource pools. This ensures that the maximum numbers of samples are processed 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 for additional savings in 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 now, this approach is 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. Here are some of the top technology milestones across the various eras of lab automation:
- Simultaneous arm movement on an automated liquid handler: The Beckman Coulter Biomek FX revolutionized the automated liquid handling market with a dual pod device that allowed for simultaneous motion and fast sample processing, something that no other liquid handler could do at the time. Robotic arms helped increase precision and accuracy across workflows by performing repetitive tasks extremely well. This saved scientists valuable time and money that could be allocated elsewhere.
- Modernized, compact automation: Many early lab automation solutions were large and bulky, taking up valuable (and expensive) lab space. The Velocity11 Bravo (now owned by Agilent Technologies) solution allowed scientists to perform more work in a small footprint, thus increasing productivity.
- Acoustic dispensing: Acoustic dispensing from Labcyte Echo (now owned by Beckman Coulter) helped to miniaturize assays down to the nanoliter scale. In turn, this miniaturization saved thousands of dollars on reagents and conserved precious samples.
- Modularity: Our very own HighRes MicroDock and MicroCart ushered in a new era of flexible laboratory automation. In a Nucleus® automated work cell, these mobile enablers empower users to physically move hardware from one work cell to another. All power, data, and utility lines conveniently flow through the work surfaces for smooth connections. Their unique modular design also means that robots and users alike may use devices placed on their surfaces to increase lab productivity. And finally, with effortless mobility, devices can be quickly swapped out for repairs and maintenance without impacting the overall workflow.
Each of these technological advances shaped the face of lab automation. They also impacted future product development plans for 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.
Modularity and Distribution
In addition to providing physical lab spaces with automation hardware, we continue to develop highly adaptable software that takes modularity beyond a single physical lab space and distributes resources across different spaces and even geographies if needed.
With Cellario, for example, we can continue to improve the automated laboratory experience by recruiting all distributed resources (devices, other software platforms) across an automated laboratory ecosystem to full advantage. Effective automation software understands the number of devices that are available, 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 various locations. This saves time, increases productivity and efficiency, and drives scientific discovery.
What is unique about this approach is that it allows lab teams to work with the best possible tools at their disposal, whenever they want. This next-generation software also enables scientists to share work with colleagues on a global scale, independent of any barriers, and to similarly distribute lab samples with significant impact.
At HighRes Biosolutions, we closely monitor 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 scientists attempt to keep up with the ever-evolving landscape of science and technology.
As a business, HighRes Biosolutions has provided scientists with modular solutions since its founding. We invented the first dockable laboratory workspaces with the development of the MicroDock™ and FlexCart™.
The MicroDock allows users to effortlessly distribute devices and other lab resources across the lab wherever and whenever they are needed, both within and across work cells. MicroDock technology ushered in a new era of modular automation, and it remains the cornerstone modular workflow approach today.
The MicroDock is a type of robotic process automation that changed researcher perspectives from inflexible to modular. It enabled users to expand their approach to process automation. With MicroDock, users also gained the ability to share devices across client sites.
And now, a new system offers even more robust modular capabilities. Nucleus automation infrastructure is the latest line of standardized hardware products from HighRes Biosolutions designed specifically with modularity and distribution in mind. Again, modularity is what helps laboratories keep pace with the evolution of science.
As a modularity-focused tool, the Nucleus table expands workflow capabilities, thus enabling device distribution, system componentry, and sample distribution. Nucleus promotes modularity both on its own and together with Cellario™ software 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:
- Flexibility: Work surfaces are no longer static system structures
- Modularity: Components can adjust as researchers evolve their science and capabilities
- Cost Savings: Scientists can now repurpose their system components to integrate new devices, saving future integration costs
- Time and Labor Savings: Requires no human assistance, as with FlexCarts, to move, for example, sample storage from one system to another
With Nucleus, scientists can continue to automate their labs at the pace of science.
Nucleus is also primed for collaborative robotics to enter the life sciences. Collaborative robots, or “cobots”, can 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.
How 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. Additionally, Cellario can prevent “islands of automation” from forming through its cloud-based functionality that allows it to connect any number of laboratory automation systems. “Islands of automation” is a term used to describe instances when automation segments are siloed, causing workflow bottlenecks to occur.
As an added benefit, Cellario can track and move samples between different robotic systems or devices, depending on the requested work.
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 such as multi-channel pipettes.
With Cellario, you can expand automation capabilities throughout your entire lab rather than just through integrated automated systems. Cellario gives you full access to requesting, assigning, and scheduling work, and viewing data in real-time through a single dashboard portal.
Where Can I 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 possibilities of scientific inquiry.
Implementation of laboratory automation solutions from HighRes Biosolutions into your laboratory processes will provide you with all the necessary components to ensure success while also freeing you to evaluate data and discover actionable insights.