Laboratories of the chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical or food technology industries are increasingly relying on automation for sample. The Modular Sample Processor, a new development from the global laboratory equipment manufacturer Anton Paar, is a reliable solution for this – and is used with electric axes and control systems from Festo.
The advantages of laboratory automation are plain to see: it frees up laboratory technicians from monotonous, repetitive tasks, and eliminates the need for them to handle hazardous substances. It permits 24-hour operation on seven days a week, and increases the quality, reproducibility and traceability of samples. But the most important advantage for the majority of laboratories is that automation not only saves time and money, but also guarantees an error-free analyses and therefore accurate results.
The Modular Sample Processor is a system for preparing samples, such as for chromatographic analysis with high-pressure throughput for samples within a range from a few up to 100 millilitres – as required in the petrochemical, food or fragrance industries. The compact bench-top platform prepares samples which are then tested, for example, for their water content, density, viscosity, suspended particles or pH value.
“We use it for automating time-consuming manual work such as pipetting, sampling, dosing and weighing across a wide range of volumes and for many different types of samples,” explains project manager Markus Schöllauf from the Automation and Robotics division of Anton Paar. This ensures the volumes, concentrations and mixtures are correct. The modular sample processor can be used as a bench-top unit for liquid media and solids, or integrated into complete automation solutions.
Gravimetrically monitored pipetting for partial samples, dosing and mixing with an extremely precise balance ensures that the volumes of the resulting partial samples will be correct. The entire workflow is controlled by software, and the gravimetrically obtained final volumes of the partial samples form the input value for the subsequent analysis.
The standard configuration of the modular sample processor is suitable for viscosities up to 1000 mPas. This means the system is designed both for free-flowing food such as wine and for more viscous ones such as vegetable oil. However, it is even possible to prepare engine oil samples effectively. Liquids with higher viscosities can also be processed on request.
It is not without good reason that the modular sample processor is called modular. It can be used as a bench-top unit in three ways: firstly as a stand-alone bench-top device for specimen preparation, secondly as a bench-top device that is directly connected to an analytic device and thirdly as a bench-top device in conjunction with additional automation modules for the workflow in a laboratory. At the same time, it can be used as an integral component of a complete automation solution according to the specific requirements of a laboratory.
Precise pipetting procedures
Compact handling gantries with electric axes from Festo – the DGEA axis in the X-direction and the EGSK axis in the Y-direction, equipped with motors of the type EMMS-ST – ensure precise pipetting procedures. Once a pipetting procedure has finished, a pneumatic AEN cylinder from Festo ensures that the used pipette is ejected into a waste chute.
Another handling system equipped with the same axes takes the sample holders from the output trays and places them on the weighing unit. There, a pipette provides the sample holders with the exact amount and volume of the substance to be tested. Following that, the sample holder is held by the handling gantry over a scanner so that the sample can be allocated using a data matrix code.
This integrated barcode reader enables the samples to be traced throughout the entire specimen preparation process. Laboratories are thus always aware of the origin of the partial sample for the subsequent analytical measurements, as well as all the steps that have been carried out on the partial sample.
At the end of this process, the sample is placed on the output tray. The output trays can then be transported out of the modular sample processor using a docked transport system and on to the next analytical process step.
Complete solution from Festo
“Festo didn’t just supply us with the axes, but also a complete system solution including a CECC Codesys controller,” says project manager Schöllauf, reporting on the cooperation with Festo. He continues by adding, “Without that, it would not have been possible for us to meet the extremely short development deadline of four months.” This also made it possible to program the two handling gantries so they would never collide despite the fact that they move within the same working space.
Developing the dispensing head was no minor task either. After all, the samples have to be assigned to precisely the correct sample containers, with no room for errors. “In this sub-project, the engineers from the Medical Technology and Laboratory Automation division of Festo demonstrated their level of expertise combined with high commitment,” continues Schöllauf. That provides security for follow-on projects, adds the project manager – just like the fact that products, solutions and services from Festo are available quickly almost anywhere in the world. That is also important for companies like Anton Paar, so that the Modular Sample Processor can be marketed on a worldwide basis.