New tech in new places

As we bid farewell to another remarkable year, it is with great pleasure and a touch of nostalgia that we reflect on the fun, frolics and achievements of 2023.
Industry insightsLabman culture 14 min read
Man wearing black and red checked shirt holding up sign saying "LABMAN!"

Katie SimpsonPublished 20th Dec 2023

The past twelve months have been nothing short of extraordinary, marked by challenges that tested our mettle and triumphs that showcased the unwavering spirit of Labman.

From achieving CE Certification on the first and only FDA approved bio storage system of it’s kind, to the tumults of the Slip and Slide at our annual summer party, this year has been a spectacular one which we would like to share with you. Over the last year we’ve been collaborating, innovating and creating new tech to bring more to the table for our customers.

Looking onwards to next year, we can’t wait to share lots of exciting news and projects. Stay tuned to our socials to see stories about what our systems are doing around the world, and how we’re making a bigger impression in your industry. You might be seeing a lot more of us around…

Reaching milestones in the medical industry

A cutting-edge robotic system, meticulously engineered and tested by Labman, has recently earned its prestigious CE mark as a certified medical device this year. Our collaboration with a pioneering US-based start-up spans four years, resulting in numerous Labman manufactured operational systems deployed across various sites in the United States.

The significance of obtaining the CE mark is monumental as it paves the way for the system’s expansion into the United Kingdom and Europe. Remarkably, this ground-breaking device has pioneered an entirely new medical device category. This marks a transformative milestone poised to revolutionise the industry and a massive achievement for the team at Labman who have worked tirelessly to get this project to where it is today.

Labman system at the heart of a groundbreaking AI-driven lab

Labman’s Powder Feeding and Slurry Handling system plays a crucial role in the discovery of new materials at a revolutionary, AI-driven lab in the US.

The Materials Project is an open-access database founded at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which computes the properties of both known and predicted materials. Google DeepMind – Google’s artificial intelligence lab – is contributing nearly 400,000 new compounds to the project, supercharging the amount of information researchers can draw upon. The virtual materials are analysed for stability, and the most stable ones can then be created as solid-state materials.

The formulation of these new materials happens at Berkeley’s purpose built A-Lab, and Labman’s system is at the centre of the process. The Labman team worked hand-in-hand with Professor Gerbrand Ceder, Bernardus Rendy, Dr Yan (Helen) Zeng, Yuxing Fei, Nathan Szymanski and Rishi E. Kumar to design the system.

Over a period of 17 days of independent operation, the A-Lab successfully produced 41 new and stable compounds. By virtually creating the compounds first, researchers don’t have to wade through inefficient guesswork to invent them from scratch. This groundbreaking project has a massive significance for the future of materials science. The materials created could be used to discover lighter alloys that improve fuel economy in cars, more efficient solar cells to boost renewable energy, or faster transistors for the next generation of computers.

As AI continues to shape our future, we are both proud and humbled to see our technology contributing to the success of the A-Lab. The project is testament to the great minds which have collaborated on it – and we’re not the only ones who are stoked. The story of the Materials Project has made waves, appearing in a list of prestigious scientific publications including Nature, Science, The Times, Reuters, Wired, New Scientist, TIME and many more.

Introducing new technologies

Introducing new technologies
Whether we’re trying them out, or making them ourselves, this year we have been exploring new technologies to ensure we’re always bringing the best to the table for our customers.

XPlanar by Beckhoff
The XPlanar has been used in lab and manufacturing applications for some time, however Labman have historically used robot arms and axes for moving things around. But this time we needed a different solution. Our customer required the use of open bed vial samplers for HPLC, but these are difficult to access via a roof mounted axis or robot arm, and the XPlanar was the perfect solution.

The cool thing about the XPlanar is that the ‘movers’ (the moving plates) are always floating above the bed, and the precision of movements is quite remarkable. The bed has built-in, electronically charged coils which repel the magnets inside the movers to manipulate them around the system bed. The floating plates provide many other benefits, such as reduction in touch points to mitigate contamination, no emissions and no wear caused by friction. Not to mention they are captivating to watch, but maybe that’s just us B-)

Our exploration of this new technology has opened the door to many other exciting use cases for Labman. The movers are electronically passive, which means they can be isolated and there is no need for a direct power supply or cables. Use in an incubator where environmental control is required or even potentially handling of hazardous materials could be solutions we explore next.

Labman R&D
Labman’s R&D Zone is a centre for experimentation, where we can prove the feasibility of new concepts and technology. We make things, break things and try out new ideas for novel problems. Historically, we have used our R&D facility to find a solution to a one off problem for a particular customer. More recently however, we have started to develop our own hardware to broaden our offering across a range of projects.

Excitingly, this year we created a brand new piece of hardware which we believe to satisfy a gap in the market.

The inception of the Labman 4 jaw gripper (the unofficial name ‘The Yorkshire Gripper’ never really took off) came about due to the lack of availability of a four jaw electric gripper. Electric grippers have greater functionality (force sensors and superior position control) over traditional pneumatic grippers, however typically, electric grippers only come with three jaws, which is problematic when picking from densely populated linear rack layouts. So we designed and built our own, which is already proving it’s worth in the field having been installed on a handful of customer projects with more in the pipeline.

Alongside the 4 jaw gripper, we have been looking at developing our own XYZ cantilever robot. Building our own has multiple benefits over buying an off the shelf system, partly because it can be built to an exact size, but crucially it gives us greater control over parts supply, lead times and availability. We’re working on seeing the first installation of the XYZ very soon.

man with dark hair wearing Labman jacket and safety goggles on his head shown behind lab robotic equipment
Labman R&D

Point of Care (PoC) Technologies

Since 2012 Labman has actively involved itself in funded research projects. Over the last 5 years Labman has been the technical partner for an Horizon 2020 EU funded project, PoCOsteo. The goal was to develop a portable medical device for early detection of predisposition to Osteoporosis. PoCOsteo was developed and the technology behind it has provided the basis for other similar devices, which can for example, detect early signs of cervical cancer.

Laptop and white PoCOsteo system

The success of PoCOsteo led to another exciting EU funded project, and earlier this year Labman became the technical lead for the development of a PoC device for the detection of various cardiovascular conditions in high-risk patients. PoCCardio is designed as a self-contained, portable method of analysing blood samples at point of care and could one day provide a critical shortcut to the correct healthcare for patients, potentially saving and improving thousands of lives. We are already in the early development phase of the PoCCardio project and we look forward to seeing where we can take it.

Biggest install to date
Our systems and instruments vary hugely in size, and could be anything from a small portable device, up to the size of a shipping container and beyond. 2023 saw the delivery of our largest system to date which was both large in scale, and also in value. Containing 6 different robots (or modules) in total, this automated beast hogged a huge area of floorspace in the factory for almost 2 years, with a footprint of 29.2m2. The CAD file alone took over half an hour to load, even on our most powerful PC’s!

The system was built for a Singapore based customer, a whopping 6737 miles away. And of course shipping the system which was meticulously distributed into 21 huge wooden crates, was quite an undertaking. After quadruple checking the insurance papers the crates set off Singapore-bound in May and spent 30 days on the water and 3 days in customs. Needless to say we were a little tense. But the successful arrival at site during July marked a significant achievement for Labman and was a testament to the hard work and dedication of the project team.

Labman factory floor with wooden crates taking up most of the floor space
21 wooden crates heading for Singapore

Labman Support
Once our systems are out in the field there is still a lifetime of support needed for that system, no matter where it is in the world.

Labman Support is our division for customer service and support, upgrades, technical issues, training and everything in-between. Things can go wrong or wear out, customers sometimes want to change or upgrade the workflow, and sometimes, like the best of us, a bit of general maintenance is required. And this is where our Support team come in.

Traditionally our Support services were covered by the original team of engineers who designed and built the system, but as the company has grown, this became unsustainable. In 2023 we transformed our Support services to ensure customers have accessible, technical help when they need it most. Many of our systems are performing critical work, particularly in the medical space and so it is crucial to avoid any unplanned system downtime or errors.

This year, Labman Support has been completely restructured and new recruits have been taken on to become dedicated support engineers, ensuring we can always meet the needs of our customers when project engineers are needed elsewhere. We now have 7 full time dedicated Support engineers to cover our global customer base – and they work from our three UK bases in North Yorkshire, Liverpool and Bracknell. From simple, remote software updates to full scale decommissioning we cover everything and manage a tight schedule to ensure we are always ready to respond if things go wrong.

As we look towards 2024, we have more exciting news, projects and collaborations in the pipeline. Our business is growing, and we are committed to ensure it happens sustainably, ethically and with humility. And let’s not forget our brilliant staff. Labman cultivates an environment of openness and creativity in our wonderful workforce, and we are dedicated to their support. Without them, none of this would be possible.

Thank you to all our staff, directors, valued customers, suppliers and community supporters. We wish you a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous, healthy and Happy New Year.

Man with brown hair and beard holding microphone
Man with brown hair wearing red jumper putting white cream on his face
blonde woman stood in front of christmas tree playing flute
Man wearing red christmas jumper holding microphone
man sits in front of christmas tree playing banjo
Woman with brown hair holding up playing card standing in front of microphone
Man wearing Christmas jumper in front of decorated tree making speech