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Interview

Published on 7 dec 20235 min read

The Future of Lab Automation – How Service Robots Can Shape The Lab of Tomorrow ?

Discover the promising possibilities and opportunities discussed by Thomas Linkenheil, Co-CEO of United Robotics Group, and Wassim Saedi, VP Product Management at URG, as they shed light on the transformative evolution in lab robotics.

Life ScienceLaboratory AutomationuMobileLab
Tim OttoHead of Marketing, Industrial Robots

Stationary automation devices are a common sight in diagnostic laboratories. While their benefits are undisputed, laboratories are often challenged with limitations such space, supervision, process integration and of course costs. Hence, it’s not surprising to see a constantly rising interest in mobile service robots. Robotic lab assistants such as uMobileLAB fill the gap and serve the demands where stationary devices fall short. Due to their mobility, small footprint and versatility, they integrate seamlessly into laboratories and the teams working within them.

Q: URG promotes its vision of CobiotX – Robots for humans. How does this vision translate into a Life Science context?


TL: CobiotX represents what we call the third generation of robotics. The 1st generation worked autonomously, but were confined to specific areas and lacked versatility. The 2nd generation, known as cobots, cooperated with humans but still needed a controlled setting and skilled operators. Cobiots on the other hand collaborate closely with humans, assisting and supporting them across various tasks and enabling them to concentrate on higher-value tasks.

This value proposition is particularly relevant for life science, an industry heavily impacted by the global skilled labor shortage. We’re facing a demographic change with an ever-aging society and an increased demand of health services. At the same time, almost one third of MTA in Germany are above 55 years and close to retirement. Cobiots and CobiotX solutions like uMobileLab enable laboratories to use their scarce personnel both in a more meaningful but also a more productive manner and to mitigate the impact on throughput and service availability.

Q: Automated laboratory devices and automation lines in diagnostic laboratories have been established for quite a while. How do Cobiots fit in this environment and what value are they adding on top of it?


WS: In a nutshell: flexible automation. uMobileLab is autonomous, mobile and covers a wide set of relevant skills. These features allow for a wide range of applications: uMobileLab can work in non- or semi-automated laboratories, it decaps and sorts of samples, prepares reagents or delivers materials to its human colleagues. At the same time, uMobileLab can also enhance the workflow in fully automated environments, supplying automation lines, load and unload devices and cover post analytical processes such as archiving. All of this can be achieved without massively altering existing workflows, device setups or lab environments, keeping transformation and change management efforts at a minimum.

Q: How does uMobileLab impact the throughput in a diagnostic laboratory and how do you measure the return on investment?


WS: uMobileLab enables MTAs and Scientists to spend more time on high-value work because they no longer need to invest their limited time on trivial or repetitive tasks or walking chores. Depending on the individual lab environment, uMobileLab can reduce walking distances by up to 70 percent. uMobileLab also reduces staff ratio requirements, a core challenge for many laboratories especially regarding nighshifts. Hence, analyses can be carried out with same personnel in an accelerated time with a higher sample throughput, easing the 24/7 service assurance that many outsourced laboratories provide to hospitals.

Q: Robotic solutions like uMobileLab seem to be highly complex pieces of technology. Will coding become a crucial part of a MTAs skill set?


TL: Two core pillars of our CobiotX philosophy are that they are designed and controlled by humans and that they are versatile and can easily switch between missions. Hence, we put great effort into intuitive controls and natural user interfaces. For uMobileLab, all configurations and setups are done in a no-code environment via drag and drop.


WS: uMobileLab uses our uGO solution which enables lab teams to create and modify workflows, set up pipettes, control centrifuges, or other equipment centrally in our platform and without any programming knowledge. The dashboard provides an intuitive interface for you to adjust workflow on-the-fly. On, top, all results and parameters can be transferred directly to your Lab Information Management System, further easing documentation and data integrity.


Q: How would you approach the future evolution of laboratory robotics, what are the next steps to further establish this technology?


WS: The current laboratory robots are adept at handling liquids, such as reagents or samples. In this area, we already cover a large part of the possible use cases, from handling and manipulation to analysis. We now need to extend these skills to other materials, such as working with powders or solids. This again brings with it completely different requirements, for example regarding the design of grippers or sensors.
Another major topic is the area of hygiene and safety classifications. Use in cleanrooms is an
exciting field of application for mobile robots. The standards in this area are correspondingly high. This also applies to the handling of hazardous substances, such as contaminated samples or radioactive materials. Here in particular, robotics has enormous potential to reduce the risks for laboratory workers on the one hand, and to increase the operational efficiency of laboratories on the other, for example by minimizing the time required for the tedious donning of protective clothing or decontamination.


TL: Currently, robotics solutions are evaluated against existing guidelines and industry standards, e.g. mechanical engineering or medical technology. These allow robots to be used in these areas, but often do not fully address the complexity of a service robot. From this point of view, we expect EU regulations in areas where there is not yet complete clarity today, such as the role of autonomous robots in civil and labor law. We see such a directive as a great opportunity to reduce uncertainties and to give both us as developers and producers, but also the users, more security. This is an important step in reducing any reservations about the wider use of robotics.

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