Laboratory Robotics And Automation

Robotics is not new to the general public but is a recent addition to the analytical laboratory. The history of robotics spans more than a half century, with the first use of the term in a 1921 play Rossums Universal Robots. The term robot is derived from the Czechoslovakian word "robota," which can be defined as one who performs compulsory labor much like an automaton (1). Science fiction literature and films are full of robots in various forms, ranging from humanoid such as Maria in the movie Metropolis to R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars and a cerebral HAL in 2001, A Space Odyssey. Probably the first exposure of many persons in the written literature came in the form of Robbie in I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (2). This volume also introduced the Three Laws of Robotics and the first robot psy-chometrician: (1) A robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm; (2) A robot must obey orders given by human beings except where such would conflict with the First Law; (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as the protection does not conflict with the First and Second Law.

Commercial laboratory robotics was introduced to the scientific community in 1982 in the form of Zymark Corporation's Zymate 1. Although there was a substantial number of organizations doing robotic research for the laboratory, this introduction allowed those who were interested in the technology to purchase it off the shelf. Laboratory automation before robotics was divided into two general categories: high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC)/gas chromatographic (GC) autosamplers and data capture and analysis units. The category of autosamplers is self-explanatory. The second category included units that ranged from instruments as simple as an integrator to as complex as in integrated laboratory information management system (LIMS). At that time, inefficient sample preparation was a substantial bottleneck to laboratory operations, so it was sensible and prudent that the early robots concentrated on sample preparation. Robotics was billed as filling the missing link in the laboratory. This article cannot hope to cover laboratory robotics in its entirety, but it provides an introduction to its uses in the laboratory and some additional references for further study.

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