Striking a balance between lab bench and bot turf
I haven’t spent much time in heavy manufacturing environments, so nothing could have prepared me for finding a fully operational factory in the middle of a normal looking lab at Millennium Pharmaceuticals. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company has a high-throughput screening facility on par with a real factory.
With eight locations and more than 1,000 researchers, technicians, and scientists, the name of the Millennium game is to stay fluid and be adaptable. Everything is a work in progress, even when technology is clearly cutting edge.
Typically, staffers are lucky to stay in one place for more than a year or two. It’s the people who revolve around big pieces of equipment (which grow heavier and more expensive all the time), not the other way around.
It’s telling, then, that staff scientist Seth Cohen is pleased about the recent doubling in size of his high-throughput-screening multi-robot. The expansion gave him a larger Texcel hardware/software system for moving barcoded compound samples in and out of larger storage libraries, more Tecan robot arms to carry hundreds of thousands of samples through the process that preps the screening plates, and “Robolab,” a custom machine that coordinates assay testing to the tune of 50,000 screens per day. Cohen is confident that the company’s multimillion-dollar and sizable square-foot commitment will mean he’s finally found a home base.
Of course, better doesn’t necessarily mean bigger. Advanced mass spec equipment was less bulky, so Millennium’s analytical chemistry department has become more a distributed resource than a central service. If it’s possible for a machine to be as flexible as the staff and lab designs are, then it moves too.
Automation equipment at Millennium is packed in, floor to ceiling. Room for single-file walking through the whole area is geared to the lone scientist or technician checking on things.
Custom microarray bots are in another lab about a mile and a half away. One of these, Poseidon, sits 10 feet away from its predecessor, Zeus. Where two-and-a-half-year-old Zeus could deliver 60 identical 6,144 element arrays in an hour, nine-month-old Poseidon delivers 72 identical 9,600 element arrays. An open space between the two machines is already ticketed for the next-generation arraybot. They run quietly, but a faint hydraulic buzz lets you know they’re on the job.
Millennium has crafted a workplace that synchs biologists, chemists, engineers, and software developers with internal and external automation hardware. One analogy that seems to be catching on compares 21st century drug discovery to the Quality Revolution that overtook the auto industry in the ’70s, starting in Japan and later in the US. Nimble integrators who can evolve their systems in step with advancing technology win.
Craig Muir, vice president of process technology, says, “We rely on hundreds of thousands of data points from hundreds of people per day. How can you sustain it and still maintain people’s connection to the science that underlies their work?” According to Muir, the toughest part of his job is “to maintain the excitement of science” despite the relentless pace that comes with mechanization.
It shows. At Millennium, lab benches are lab benches, and automated, high-throughput production facilities are where the machines go. You don’t see the equipment piled atop the bench, a situation where net productivity can drop precipitously for both man (lost work area) and machine (impossible to maintain). Keeping workspaces distinct is a product of forethought and organization; and productive research, with the added benefit of continuous improvement, is the end result.
Brad Stenger is a freelance journalist who researches human-computer interaction in computational biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, designs bioinformatic interfaces for Yale’s Gerstein Lab, and works as a laboratory planner for archi-tectural firm CUH2A. Send your comments to Brad at [email protected]