Interview with Tobias Brode, Head of Business Unit Medical Engineering and Biotechnology, Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA
If Kevin was alone in the lab at night, the next morning, the workers will not find chaos, but labeled tubes and prepared samples. Kevin is a laboratory robot developed by Fraunhofer IPA to relieve the strain on laboratory workers so that they can concentrate on the essentials: research and diagnostics.
In a MEDICA-tradefair.com interview, Tobias Brode talks about outdated processes in the laboratory, how a robot can optimize them and why automation can be vital.
Mr. Brode, what do classical work processes in the laboratory look like?
Tobias Brode: In the laboratory we have the special situation that on the one hand there are a lot of high-tech devices, but on the other hand the work itself has hardly changed over the last hundred years. It is still the case that laboratory technicians walk back and forth between the various workplaces and devices to transport microtiter plates, tubes, samples and so on from one place to another. Although these devices can perform sub-process steps autonomously, networking of the individual steps is usually not possible due to a lack of compatibility – neither digitally nor physically. The laboratory consists of small automation islands, so to speak, which are only connected to each other by the workers.
Of course, the hurdles just described can be overcome by the use of money and time. This is already being done today in areas of pharmaceutical research or diagnostics, where the development of a system often costs more than a million euros. This then involves placing the various devices around a robot and enclosing them in a housing. So they are very rigid systems that are restricted to a specific process.
Thanks to the laboratory robot Kevin, the operating times of the devices can be extended to night time. This reduces the workload of the staff and increases the throughput of PCR tests, for example.
Your laboratory robot Kevin should change that. How does he do that?
Brode: The idea behind Kevin is to automate processes without having to make costly changes to the existing infrastructure. There are exciting examples of this in other industries. Another aspect is better utilization of the sometimes expensive equipment. Thanks to Kevin's collaboration, these can also be used at night. Kevin uses a collaborative robotic arm from Precise Automation, which we mounted on a mobile platform developed by Fraunhofer. It is also equipped with a camera, an image processing program and a learning algorithm. In principle, it is a transport robot that, for example, takes samples from device A to device B. This enables him to network the different devices in the laboratory and to implement an automation process that is not possible in a rigid system.
What added value does Kevin offer – especially in the current situation?
Brode: If an employee has started a process during the day and brought the cells into the incubator in the evening, it may be that a media change has to be made or a sample taken at night. Thanks to Kevin, the worker doesn't have to be in the lab himself at night. The robot can drive autonomously to the incubator, remove the cell culture plate and bring it to the pipettor where a media change is made. Or a sample is taken and placed in an analyzer. Then Kevin brings the cells back to the incubator.
Laboratory workers are often busy in the morning with preparation steps that cost them a lot of time. These are rather repetitive tasks such as labeling tubes or preparing samples. Kevin can handle such tasks well at night. So the prepared vials are already ready when the worker come to the laboratory in the morning so that they can start work directly on the value-adding work, such as testing. Of course, this makes all the more sense during the corona pandemic. Thanks to Kevin, the use of laboratory equipment can be extended to the night, increasing the throughput of PCR tests and perhaps avoiding bottlenecks – without employees having to work a night shift.
When the employees come to the laboratory in the morning, Kevin has already labeled tubes and prepared samples. This saves them valuable time and they can start testing immediately.
Is there anything that the robot cannot do?
Brode: Kevin is a highly specialized transport robot. He does not do experiments and cannot pipette, for example. Such approaches do exist, but so far there are no sensible solutions that would flexibly implement complex handling steps both reliably and quickly like a human. Kevin can take over fetch-and-bring tasks and thus make work easier for the laboratory workers.
For example, a laboratory worker sits at the Clean Bench wearing freshly sterilized gloves and notices that he is still missing a cell culture plate. So he gets up, takes off his gloves, goes to the warehouse, gets the missing things, goes back to the Clean Bench and has to sterilize everything again. That can take a quarter of an hour. This is where Kevin can come into play. The worker calls him at his workplace at the push of a button and orders the required plates. Kevin then drives to the warehouse and brings them to him. It's not a matter of the robot replacing the worker, but rather of the worker being able to concentrate on the steps that make a process worthwhile.
Kevin will be able to develop his full potential when more laboratories have sufficient digitalization. The more extensive the networking possibilities are, the more intelligently Kevin can perform his tasks.
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Kevin provides support for pick-up and delivery tasks, for example when an employee needs something from the warehouse.
Can you give us an outlook: How important will robotics and automation be in the medical sector in the future?
Brode: In my opinion, flexible automation will play a major role in the production of cell therapeutics for cancer treatment, for example. A CAR-T cell therapy currently costs 350,000 dollars upwards per patient. Due to the complex and lengthy process steps, the demand for such therapeutics cannot be covered affordably by manual production. Automation could reduce costs and make such therapies more widely available.
I also believe that automation could prevent bottlenecks such as those experienced during the corona pandemic. However, this will only work if automation is flexible. So automation should not be implemented for a specific process only, but in such a way that different processes can be carried out automatically depending on requirements. This is the only way to respond to different needs – today it is Covid-19, tomorrow something else. With Kevin we are taking a big step in this direction.
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