College of American Pathologists
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  Flexibility at heart of automation solutions


CAP Today


March 2008
Feature Story

Anne Ford

Thirty-four years ago, one of the most famous fast-food slogans to ever hit the airwaves made its debut. These days it survives mostly in the form of annoying T-shirt slogans: "This Isn't Burger King. You Can't Have It Your Way."

Actually, you can, at least when it comes to laboratory automation. So say the vendors in this month's instrumentation survey, which focuses on laboratory automation systems and workcells, many of which are highly configurable. It's a message that his company's customers are happy to hear, says Bart Cobb, perianalytics product manager for Abbott Laboratories: "The ability to create a unique layout, while prioritizing workflow processes and keeping structural limitations in mind, is truly resonating with Abbott customers."

Gary Allen, Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics' head of global marketing automation solutions, agrees, adding that in his view, "successful vendors incorporate engineering ­design in automation that is inherently flexible and customization-friendly for the customers they serve." In other words, you can have it your way, and-in contrast to the crabby counter worker who sold you your last combo meal-lab automation manufacturers are more than happy to explain how.

Take AI Scientific's PathFinder 900 and PathFinder 350s instruments, released just this quarter. The PathFinder 900, a front- or back-end automation system, offers sorting, decapping, aliquotting, and capping; can sort more than 900 tubes an hour; and uses a dual-track configuration that "allows samples requiring only sorting to bypass queues of work for the aliquot and capping modules," says Daron Green, business development manager for pathology systems. Its sibling instrument, the PathFinder 350s, is a small benchtop sorter that automates any manual processing steps and allows customers to "remove many bottlenecks or sources of error from laboratory processes without having to redesign the workflow and the environment."

Customization, Green says, lies at the heart of both instruments' design. "For instance, a user may require more sorting capacity than aliquotting, so a PathFinder 900 can be configured with full functionality to work cooperatively with one of the more dedicated decentralized PathFinder 350s units," he says. Another example: "We can join a PathFinder 350s with a capper module from the Pathfinder 900 to create a dedicated capper/ sorter instrument."

If you want evidence that Abbott's customers demand configurable options, says Cobb, just look at the many Accelerator APS, or automated processing systems, the company has installed around the world. "No two layouts are the same," he says. "Customers are gravitating to the unique configurations available with Accelerator APS." Abbott recently added the Architect i2000SR and c16000 interface modules to its instrumentation lineup. The i2000SR offers online stat immunoassay testing and an expanded online immunoassay menu, while the c16000 is aimed at helping high-volume laboratories increase throughput.

Integrated Laboratory Automation Solutions' newest product, the Efficiency Series Lab Automation System, meets the demands of laboratories that "are insisting more and more on open automation systems," says Peter Manes, vice president of sales for the company's western region. The modular, open-automation Efficiency system can accommodate a range of direct-track sampling instruments, he says: "The versatility of the system is like no other. Each automation system is custom-designed so equipment such as automated aliquotters, decappers, recappers, sorters, and centrifugation units can be added." This flexibility also appeals to laboratories with budgetary restrictions, he says, because the system can be expanded or reconfigured for future needs.

On the horizon at Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics: two instruments in development and due to launch by the end of the year. Nadav Kaufman, worldwide product manager for lab automation, says that both the Vitros 5600 integrated system and Vitros 3600 immunodiagnostic system "are designed to be automation-ready the day they are launched, and will be unique in their ability to sample pediatric tubes with adapters directly from a track system." Also in development is the Combined Rack Entry Exit Flex module, which Kaufman calls a "higher throughput, even more flexible version of our entry/exit module" and which will be able to retrieve tubes from storage racks on demand and feature drawers that are interchangeable to fit different types of racks.

On the flexibility front, Ortho-Clinical recently added a recapper to its EnGen product line; the new feature uses a universal cap that fits multiple tube sizes. "Then we launched an improved version of our decapper, called the Decapper Flex," Kaufman adds. "Some of the decappers on the market can handle different widths, but customers must select just one width. Our new decapper can comfortably handle different heights and widths of tubes because it has sensors that sense the height and width of each tube." Finally, the company has released an EnGen robotic interface module for the Vitros ECiQ immunodiagnostic system outside the United States. The module is under regulatory review in the U.S.

To explain his company's dedication to offering systems with excellent configurability, Peter Van Overwalle, systems marketing manager for Roche Diagnostics, points to a recent survey of 200 Roche customers. The survey revealed, he says, that 60 percent of the respondents plan to consolidate systems or improve existing consolidation within the next year and a half. Additionally, Van Overwalle reports, laboratory managers "are asking us for ways to help them reduce manual tasks and errors, such as by providing systems that can accommodate multiple tube sizes, further expand their menu, and provide system alternatives that can easily grow with them."

That's why "Roche is continuing to develop different configurations for the Cobas 6000 to give our customers as much flexibility as possible to accommodate their lab layout and future growth," he says. The Cobas 6000's three modules can be used in seven configurations. "The higher-volume chemistry configurations for Cobas 6000 launched in the third quarter of 2007, and the higher-volume immunoassay configurations are anticipated to launch in the first quarter of 2009," he adds. Over the next one to three years, Roche plans to add infectious disease, tumor marker, osteoporosis, and heart disease assays, among them nine-minute stat tests, to the Cobas 6000. Already introduced in late 2007 is the Modular Analytics Evo software, which prioritizes reporting results for all stat samples and allows reruns and reflex ISE/clinical chemistry testing while immunoassay testing is still underway.

Siemens shares Roche's emphasis on configurability. "We believe every laboratory has unique and specific automation needs, and we aggressively invest in the development of automation solutions that offer labs flexibility," Allen says. "Siemens has expanded choice for customers by building a comprehensive portfolio of automation options," including the Dimension Lynx integrated system for entry-level automation, the Advia WorkCell CDX and VersaCell mid-range workcell solutions, and the Advia LabCell and StreamLab systems for full automation. In the future, customers can expect "a more comprehensive set of Siemens analyzers with connectivity to Siemens automation solutions, as well as expanded functionality in our flagship automation systems," he concludes.

Customers can look for a new product from Beckman Coulter as well: the UniCel DxC 880i Synchron Access clinical system with closed-tube sampling and closed-tube aliquotting, due out this quarter. With a menu of more than 150 tests, 120 of them onboard, this high-volume workcell "makes it possible for laboratories to perform parallel processing of chemistry and immunoassay testing, while retaining operating flexibility and improving lab safety and productivity," says Jeff McHugh, corporate vice president, chemistry systems business center. The AutoMate 800 sample processing system is already available for automated pre- and postanalytical sample processing and boasts a single point of entry, automated sample loading and sorting, a fully integrated and programmable centrifuge, and automated "through the label" sample volume detection.

Customization implies a wide-ranging array of features, as Sysmex senior product manager Nilam Patel points out, saying, "The future in automation includes more comprehensive solutions that manage samples, data, and testing." Her company's most recently introduced solutions aim to expand the testing profile and management of a labora­tory's lavender-top samples. "This is accomplished through the use of the TS-Series sorter/archiver and the integration of the Bio-Rad Variant II Turbo Link HbA1c testing system onto Sysmex's HST-N automation platform, which is driven by Molis WAM decision logic software," she says. The integrated hematology and diabetes testing solution will be available mid-year. "This complete system will provide clinical laboratories with a complete and integrated solution that automates sample processing, eliminates sample splitting, and dramatically improves operational efficiencies while reducing costs and errors," Patel says.

At Olympus America, the flexibility trend takes shape in the stand-alone OLA2500 automation system, which, says automation and integration systems director Hiro Sekiya, was "designed to be an open, flexible system in order to handle all samples for processing." The OLA2500, which has been installed in more than 250 locations worldwide, features a new tube inspection unit that identifies different sample tubes and caps, including those with marble- and ring-pattern closures. Soon, Sekiya says, Olympus America will announce its plans to offer U.S. customers "a complete flexible, expandable track-based system" that will support the company's AU series of clinical chemistry and immunoassay analyzers. A new clinical chemistry analyzer, the AU680, will feature direct-track sampling for track connection and consolidation.

As automation becomes increasingly valuable to all laboratories, not just large ones, the need for affordable, small-footprint, stand-alone systems arises. Motoman is introducing just such a system, says Craig Rubenstein, sales manager for life sciences-the AutoSorter III, a stand-alone preanalytic workcell for hospital and medium-volume reference labs. "This workcell performs centrifugation, decapping, and sorting into personality racks, as well as consolidation and logging of postanalytic specimens for archive," he says. In the future, "AutoSorter III capabilities will be expanded with the availability of optional aliquotting and tube recapping. Prior to the first installations of AutoSorter III, our customers were asking us to consider integrating these processes to more completely automate the steps that are problematic to perform manually. We are working to develop cost-effective and flexible solutions for both of these processes, as well as the addition of conveyer connectivity."

Demands for system flexibility are popping up overseas, too. As Miriam Hoelzel, head of international marketing and sales for Germany-based Probenverteiltechnik and CEO of the company's U.S. branch, PVT LabSystems, explains, those demands are taking the form of customers' reluctance to depend on one supplier and their desire to use varying racks and tubes in the same system. "PVT is independent of any analytical company and can use all kinds of standard tubes and racks," she says. In the future, "we will introduce a new capability that connects our front-end system to different kinds of track systems from IVD companies and other suppliers," as well as "introduce a new tube inspection unit for volume detection for doing aliquots with see-through bar-code labels, so that the labels can be around the tube and it is still possible to measure the volume." In the meantime, the company's Aliquoter RSD Pro, Sorter RSD Pro, and Sorter ProV products have been redesigned to offer more speed and improved operation.

Finally, Thermo Fisher Scientific is in the process of releasing several new modules for its TCAutomation product line. "We launched a recapping module with multi-tube capability," says product marketing manager Janne Järvinen, "meaning the system is able to recap primary and secondary tubes with different dimensions for storing purposes. Then a second generation of our decapping module was released. It also offers multi-tube capability and an increased throughput of 600 tubes per hour." Thermo Fisher is busy now with several new developments, mainly new instrument interfaces for different clinical chemistry, immunochemistry, and coagulation systems, Järvinen says. "We are also busy developing the refrigerated storage and retrieval module, which allows online short-term sample storing and automated retrieval if sample re-runs are needed." Why all this activity? "We have seen during the last few years that lab automation has proven its benefits," he explains. "Not only large-scale but also smaller laboratories are looking for automation to improve their daily workflow, and we feel this trend will continue."

In CAP TODAY's survey of laboratory automation systems and workcells are all the systems from the aforementioned manufacturers. Vendors supplied the information listed. Readers interested in a particular system should confirm that it has the stated features and capabilities.

Anne Ford is a writer in Chicago.