Dutch lead Europe in lab automation
The Netherlands' largest water supply company, Vitens, has just opened a new water analysis laboratory at purpose-built premises in Leeuwarden. Natasha Wiseman reports on an Anglo-Dutch partnership project that has created Europe's most highly automated water laboratory.
The opening of Vitens’ new potable water analysis laboratory in Leeuwarden on 3 January 2005, six months ahead of schedule, was the culmination of a plan first proposed when the company was created in May 2002. The merger of three formerly independent laboratories onto one site meant building new facilities and creating a whole new system.
“We’ve completely redesigned our processes,” said laboratory manager Wouter van Delft, “we also had to redesign the whole logistics process.”
The automated system, designed and constructed by Labman Automation of the UK, handles organic, inorganic and microbiological samples in separate areas, linked by conveyor belts. The laboratory is designed to handle up to 2500 sample bottles a day, many of which undergo multiple testing and sub-sampling. The laboratory can analyse up to 250 components.
Labman’s managing director, Andrew Whitwell, said, “The rationale behind the US$12 million project is primarily the cost per test and secondarily, process speed and test quality. The robotics budget was US$5 million including the chilled buffers, conveyors and overall control and scheduling software.”
Advantages are that the laboratory can operate even when unattended such as overnight and at weekends, the results are repeatable and, as senior project specialist Jamie Marsay enthused, “The bottle tracking system means that at any time, any analyst can find out where any bottle is.”
Logistics and communication
In partnership with Kiestra Lab Automation of the Netherlands, Labman has developed software to optimise routing of samples.
Wouter van Delft says of the system, “We know in advance which bottles are coming. When the bottles come into the lab, they are scanned for the barcode and sent for testing; it’s the sample that moves.”
The system operates in a centralised communication environment, the Manufacturing Execution System (MES) uses 21 computers to handle all bottle transfers and logistics within the automated laboratory. This includes scheduling and handling all tests, storing and processing completed test results and presenting system and sample status to operators. In the future, the system may be installed into the cars of sample-takers.
It is the conviction of the Vitens-Labman-Kiestra team that water laboratories embracing the latest automation in large capital laboratory projects are now able to show much better cost savings. Wouter van Delft expects payback for the Vitens facility in five to seven years and for costs to be cut by one-third.
Andrew Whitwell said, “At its basic level, automation provides the opportunity to transport, track, test and report at a fraction of the cost and in considerably less time than is required using conventional methods.”
Automation in action
1. Incoming bottles of various types (glass, polypropylene and polyethylene) and with various caps are registered by barcode readers at one of several input conveyors.
2. Data is matched with a database to identify the required tests.
3. Samples destined for the microbiology laboratory are conveyed into a room chilled to 4oC for temporary storage and marshalled into 20 lanes, depending on the type of test required and the priority of the sample.
4. Tests for E.coli and legionella are undertaken on a unit that automatically fills, cools and pipettes samples, then lids and labels and incubates petri dishes ready for manual colony counting.
5. The chilled inorganic laboratory buffer is a random-access buffer where samples are continually recirculated.
6. As each sample goes around the buffer, the eight robots are checked to see if they are ready for the next sample.
7. When a robot is ready, a sample is transferred, via a cap remover, on a servo-motor-driven transport carriage.
8. As new samples reach each robot, other samples are held on the transport carriage as they shuttle between robots for multiple tests which include: oxygen, pH, temperature, colour, turbidity, hardness, conductivity, NH4/PO4, NO2, F, CI, NO3, SO4, KmnO4 and urea.
9. Bottles are buffered on the transfer axis in order to ensure that the robots are always busy.
10. Organic and inorganic plastic sample bottles are disposed of separately, being emptied and crushed automatically.
In the event of a barcode being unreadable, a bottle would be channeled through a manual lane. If one of the systems were to go down, the system would process as many of the tests as possible and flag bottles that needed further tests. If a fault occurs on the robot system, it automatically alerts a night porter through the building management system and no more bottles are taken until the system has been restored.