Early robots were purchased for a variety of reasons, including what could be called an evaluation of the technology, which was a very acceptable justification. This could be called the era of gee-whiz robotics. Because laboratory robotics is well established, the gee-whiz era has passed and users are more interested in an application-based system. These types of systems can be divided into two broad categories: (1) task based and (2) assay based. The task-based robot is configured to accomplish a particular laboratory operation or discrete series of laboratory operations. Laboratory unit operations are (4): weighing, grinding, manipulation, liquid handling, conditioning, measurement, control, data reduction, and documentation.
These various operations are common to laboratories and not particular to any specific segment. Examples of this might be liquid-liquid extraction, centrifugation, weighing, or solid-phase extraction. A laboratory might do enough of these operations to use a robot or robotic workstation. Additionally, a unit might be procured to accomplish a number of these operations, such as solid phase extraction (SPE) and HPLC injection. As one of the major uses of robotics is HPLC sample preparation, it is reasonable to assume that commercial units have been developed to concentrate in this area. The ASPEC and ASTED by Gilson and the Benchmate by Zymark are examples of these units that will accomplish several of the laboratory unit operations. Figures 5 and 6 illustrate two of these units. One could of course use a robotic system to accomplish operations, but it would not be used to the fullest capacity.
A second group of task-based units could be classified as robotic autosamplers for HPLC. A substantial number of vendors have this type of unit. In addition to acting as an HPLC autosampler, these types of units also have
Figure 3. The Biomek, and X,Y,Z robot, communicates with peripheral devices.
them to communicate with other instruments or peripheral devices. The early generation of robots was difficult to program, not owing to a difficult robot language but largely to the fact that in some instances each robot movement had to be taught and then stored in the robot memory. The current generation of robots has eliminated this bottleneck with many systems being able to run samples within hours after their installation. This is due to a number of factors, including the introduction of PyTechnology by Zymark, where certain common laboratory operations had the nec-
Figure 5. One of the major uses of robotics is HPLC sample preparation.
Figure 6. The Benchmate by Zymark accomplishes several of the laboratory unit operations.
This eliminates the data variability due to derivative formation and derivative decay. A final type of task-based instrument is typified by the AASP by Varian, which allows on-line solid-phase extraction and subsequent HPLC injection using a prepacked Solid Phase Extraction cassette. This unit has seen limited success in the food industry but has loyal following in a number of life sciences laboratories.
The other general category of robots that are in use could be classified as assay based. A prime example that is in use and likely one of the largest uses of robotics is in pharmaceutical organizations accomplishing drug dissolution testing. This particular assay is labor intensive and repetitive, making it very suitable for robotic implementation. A similar assay that is in use in the food industry is the Mojonnier assay. This assay is used for the determination of percentage fat content and is also labor intensive and repetitive. An organization can presently purchase a turnkey system through a partnership between a major robot vendor, Zymark, and a custom programming and device manufacturer, Forcoven Products. A number of these systems are in place throughout the world producing data that are equivalent or superior to that obtained by manual techniques (4).
Another type of assay-based system that is more generic in nature is a system capable of sample preparation for HPLC, injection onto the HPLC, and the transmission of the data to an external computer for subsequent analysis. Other examples of the use of robotics in the food industry include: Karl Fischer titration, particle size analysis, vitamin analysis, pesticide residue analysis, flavor compounding, pH analysis, and total dietary fiber.
This information provides some selected uses of the various forms of robotics in food industry laboratories. There is, of course, substantial overlap among many application areas, so it is not easy to segment them as an application used in the food industry, such as HPLC sample preparation, could easily apply to the petrochemical industry or a life sciences laboratory.
Sometimes a laboratory might have a custom application for robotics that does not fit easily into either the task-based or assay-based unit, so a custom robot is the obvious choice. When a custom application is needed, a user then has two ways to implement this procedure. This can be accomplished either through the use of internal resources or through the use of a system house. Each has its series of attributes, which will not be outlined in this article.
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