Labman's smartest automation yet; The Collaborative Formulator

Integrating our smartest features into one.
Project spotlightProcess insightsInnovation showcase 20 min read

Katie SimpsonPublished 19th Jul 2023

A series of recent collaborative robotic systems, designed and built by Labman for a confidential, multinational customer are the latest in our portfolio to raise the bar for laboratory automation to become more intuitive than ever. From the ground up, the systems have been designed with the ultimate goal of maximising their effectiveness in the lab by taking automation to the next level.

The first in this series is an open platform, collaborative system designed to formulate coloured products. The system features illuminated smart racks, an impressive dispense accuracy of 2mg, self-teaching dispense algorithms for unrecognised materials, a homogenous mixing module and robust capping/de-capping, not to mention our most intuitive user interface yet.

The Collaborative Formulator is the kind of co-worker we’re all looking for.

The Collaborative Formulator by Labman

Cobots have a time and a place in industry – for example they would not be first choice when a very high-throughput is required, or an application handling heavy or hazardous materials. The focus for this project was to break down the barrier between users and the system, by making it safe, accessible and as intuitive as possible. The system is packed with features intended to assist the user experience, minimising the need for training and human intervention. Technicians are freed up from laborious tasks allowing them to focus on top-level work and decision making.

The system workflow is centred around a UR5e collaborative robot arm from Universal Robots. The use of cobots in laboratory automation is nothing new, because they are ideal for co-habiting space with humans, and provide a compact solution – perfect for slotting into an existing workflow. Safety is paramount when working with any robot and so to eliminate the need for a safety enclosure, cobots are designed to use minimum force to perform their tasks, and equipped with multiple sensors. This basically means the robot will slow down when it is in close proximity to a person, and it will stop if makes contact.

Owing to the collaborative robot arm, the Formulator benefits from the flexibility to load and unload consumables on an ad-hoc basis with minimum safety training or the need for tedious startup routines. Additionally, SICK safety scanners installed underneath the platform mean the system is safe to interact with, and so technicians can focus on getting on with things.

Man wearing a lab coat loading vials into Collaborative formulator
Collaborative Formulator

A smart rack has been specially developed by Labman to quickly communicate vial status and errors to the user. The smart rack operates using sensors placed beneath the platform bed to detect the presence and orientation of the vials, and if they are empty or not.

The outcome of runs, such as completed run or error can be quickly communicated to the user via a custom-built led ring of coloured lights under the bed of the platform. These change instantaneously when a vial is placed so that the status is immediately, and widely communicated.

Additionally, status lights positioned all around the bed of the platform flash when assistance is required, and these can be seen all around the lab. This avoids the need for irritating sound alerts, and ensures users are only returning to the PC when absolutely necessary.

Collaborative Formulator smart rack with vials in
Collaborative Formulator Smart Rack

All dispense cartridges have an RFID tag which is automatically read when it is loaded onto the system. When a user loads an unrecognised material, the system is able to autonomously calibrate it by performing a sample dispense routine, whereby a fixed volume of material is dispensed and weighed. Owing to the dispense accuracy of the system, it will continuously analyse and adapt the calibration of materials as the system is running – this ensures the dispense accuracy is always optimised.

Collaborative Formulator

The Formulator capitalises on the way in which the camera can capture and analyse images, again, to bypass the need for a human to do it. For example, the camera is used recalibrate the cobot’s own position. If it is moved (for example during maintenance) it can use the camera to check reference points on the platform to calibrate its own position. It can also check for the presence of consumables around the platform.

As part of this series of robots, Labman have taken further advantage of image analysis on other systems, to enable handling of non-uniform samples. Images are captured by the camera to detect the size and shape of an individual sample. The images are then analysed and the cobot autonomously responds to variations by creating a custom adaptation of the action required to process that sample. This could be dispense parameters, or for example a robotic path to be mapped out. This feature could be compared to humans quickly adapting the action required to pour juice into different sized cups, or to apply polish to different shaped fingernails.

Collaborative Formulator

Industrial robots can take up a lot of space in a lab. The necessity for a safety enclosure contributes towards its size, as well as creating a divide between the robot and the users. This cannot be avoided in certain industries. The cumbersome size and installation methods will likely mean the system is more difficult to re-deploy to different workstations for future uses.

The use of cobots makes robotic systems much more adaptable to future needs. For example, the dispense module of The Collaborative Formulator was designed to enable use as a stand-alone module. Since the industry is always changing it provides excellent ROI as it can be deployed to future uses with minor modification.

Cobots in general are smaller, more mobile and easier to deploy to future applications. Programming is simpler which means they are a realistic choice for integrating into working labs and pre-existing work flows. They can also still be used for handling hazardous materials and dangerous work. Should the need arise, the cobot has the capability to do this (albeit within a new set of safety requirements).

And it is not just the cobot which makes Labman smart systems future proof. The smart rack LED lights and status light colours are customisable for different event types which allows adaptability for future processes.

The Collaborative Formulator is adaptable and upgradeable, representing a new standard in lab robotics. With its advanced sensing capabilities, adaptive learning algorithms, and seamless integration into various environments, it promises to enhance productivity, revolutionise workflows and empower individuals.

Labman’s portfolio of Smart systems is slowly increasing. Find out more about this system here. If you have any questions about this system, cobots, or other ways we can automate your process, contact us at [email protected].