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Honey, I ve Shrunk the Robot

PALM SPRINGS, Calif., Jan. 31 - Most things about the LabAutomation conference here were bigger than last year--more space, more exhibitors, more attendees--except a trend in technology.


The instruments are getting smaller, and this will continue over the next several years, some attendees observed.


"Everything is shrinking in size," said conference Chair Robin Felder. "Microfabrication will allow room-size automation to be reduced to the size of a postage stamp. It's moving far faster than any of us anticipated. Within five years there will be a significant number of [microfabricated] products available in the market."


As an example of this trend, Felder and others pointed to the plastic microplate. In 2001, the standard plate had 384 wells. Now, 1,536 wells occupy the same footprint, an amount that most of last year's equipment could not handle, Felder said.


Miniaturization is coming "out of the research lab stage, we're seeing it in products," said Tony Beugelsdijk, chairman of the board of the Association for Laboratory Automation and director of Los Alamos National Laboratory's robotics program. "Microarrays and microfluidics are in the phase high-throughput-screening was about four years ago."


This was on display at this year's conference, which ended on Wednesday, with a 14 percent increase in attendees to 3,629 and a 38 percent jump in the number of exhibitors, which totaled 166 in 2002, according to Michael Randow, webmaster for the Association for Laboratory Automation, which sponsored the conference.


The drive toward miniaturization is being fueled by the ability to do more for less. More samples can be processed using less reagent and sample material. The trend is also being nudged along by the increasing ability to use advanced software and technology to track the increasing numbers of shrunken samples, said Peter Collins, sales and marketing director of UK-based ABgene, which offers matrix coding for data tracking. The coding "allows you to put a lot of information in a small space," he said.


Along the lines of smaller-is-better is another product trend people were talking about: modularity.


"People want to do plug-and-play," said Judi Tilghman, business development manager at PerkinElmer. "To take individual components of a robotic system and move them around for their needs."


"We've come up with modular scalable technology so customers can take care of current needs without being locked into" bigger systems," said Trevor Jones, a business unit manager at Ontario, Canada-based CRS Robotics.


Attendees point to economic as well as plug-and-play factors spurring the push toward modular solutions.


"Labs are reluctant to invest large amounts of money at one time," said Felder, who also said customers were taking a more rational approach to the automated systems they were purchasing because of their experience with the technology that's been out for a few years.


He added that peripheral devices such as plate scanners, liquid handling robots, and plate sealers were now mostly "vendor neutral devices" in terms of the different company systems in which they could be utilized.


"More vendors are acting in an integrator role now," agreed Beugelsdijk. "There's more value in selling an integrated system."


Customers' growing experience and understanding of robotics has helped drive the integration of the technology while pushing manufacturers to provide user-friendly systems.


"Now with automation and ease of use, clients speak our terminology," said Robert Donoho, manager of strategic marketing for Indianapolis-based Beckman Coulter's life science-research division. Customers "don't need a robotics engineer" to understand how to work the equipment. "The automation industry is maturing."


The evolution of the industry, which is leading to "better engineering and more mapping out of the various technologies into an overall process," according to Beugelsdijk, is also attracting nontraditional players to biotech, including industrial automation companies as first-time exhibitors, he said.


"A lot of engineering companies that used to be in semi-conductors are marketing in biotech now," agreed James Snook, senior market manager at Switzerland-based Qiagen Instruments. These "guys are walking around [the exhibit floor] trying to drum up business. They're going where the dollars are."

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