One of Labman’s latest automation success stories is their collaboration with the team at CPI’s Sedgefield based National Formulation Centre to design and build their latest piece of kit, The Formulation System with Glovebox.
CPI work with partners to translate innovative ideas into products or processes in the marketplace. The National Formulation Centre supports the whole of the UK formulation sector so the nature of their work is incredibly varied. To support this, a very flexible and agile set of automation tools was required. Labman and CPI had already worked together previously, and this time we were working with a team lead by Dr Lynn Donlon, Principal Scientist for the high throughput programmes within CPI’s Formulation business unit.
As a result of multiple ideation sessions across various teams at CPI, they identified a number of key areas in which they wished to expand their high throughput offer. This included a non-invasive mixing technique, the ability to handle toxic battery materials and nanomaterials safely, a wide range of dispense tools, including for challenging materials such as slurries, and a screen for surface tension (pendant drop module) which has previously been carried out by hand.
Following extensive proof of concept stages, the robot was built; an easily upgradable, innovative, high-throughput formulation system. It is capable of dispensing liquids, powders, resins and slurries with accuracies up to ±1mg. It features a dual asymmetric centrifuge (DAC mixer), a syringe transfer module to allow formulations to be fed back into the system and a pendant drop module to measure surface tension.
Labman’s senior project leaders Tony Cumpson and Sean Devereux, were assisted by a core team of five engineers who worked on the project from beginning to end. When asked about some of the challenges and successes they faced, project leader Matthew Tripp talked about how they overcame the problem of dispensing of difficult materials;
“We had to integrate and test eight different types of dispensers, most of which we designed and built ourselves tailored specific to CPI’s needs. Our custom software interface also allowed the dispense algorithm for each dispenser to be easily configurable for new materials.”Matthew Tripp – Project Leader, Labman
Matthew also spoke of another novel feature – the syringe transfer module, which was used to transfer formulations produced by the system into syringes with minimal air transfer. The solution they reached meant the syringes could then be conveniently passed onto other robots, (such as CPID, an automated drawdown system previously built by Labman for CPI), for further analysis or loaded back into one of the system’s small syringe dispensers for use in future formulations. CPI described the outcome as ‘a very elegant solution’.
The integrated glovebox enclosure, which was built by Glove Box Technology Limited has proven vital in the campaigns which are already keeping the formulation system very busy. It was initially designed to support formulation of inks, adhesives and battery products and has proven itself to be extremely versatile.
CPI are already taking advantage of the modular nature of the system and space for expansion, currently working with Labman to design and install a multifunction probe station for analytical measurements, such as near infrared spectroscopy.
A true collaboration
Despite the challenges brought about by Coronavirus, the collaboration has been more than a success. Alongside having a great deal of fun, we were delighted to hear Lynn speak about Labman’s inventive methods, great technical solutions, and effective problem solving. She also said:
“The entire Labman project team have been an absolute pleasure to work with and I have thoroughly enjoyed the design and build process. The project has been a true collaboration, combining CPI Formulation knowledge with Labman’s automation expertise and an excellent glove box supplier (Glove Box Technology) to come up with an innovative and reliable system that’s delivering exactly what we designed it to do”.Dr Lynn Donlon – Principal Scientist, High Throughput, CPI
During the follow up period it was also fantastic to hear from Tony Jackson, Director of Formulation at CPI who told us about the additional capacity and capability that the system has provided:
“I’m really excited that this new high-throughput system gives us much more capacity in an in demand area for the National Formulation Centre, as well as additional capability. This includes new battery materials capability which is a strategically important area for CPI to support the UK’s 2030/2035 targets for increased electric vehicle uptake”.Tony Jackson – Director of Formulation, CPI
The system was delivered and built over a number of days at The Coxon Building – CPI’s Sedgefield site late in 2020 and since, it has been in constant use.