Tight cycle times are the order of the day in analytical laboratories, because entire process chains in the economy depend on a punctual and accurate result. In order to analyze a higher number of samples while maintaining a consistently high quality and to relieve the burden on the laboratory staff, Eurofins Dr. Specht Express GmbH automates its pesticide analysis with a robot system. They received support from the system integrator Elbatron GmbH, who relies on the automation solutions from ABB Robotics. From now on, three six-axis robots of the type IRB 1200 will handle the samples in the analysis laboratory.
"If you throw a sugar cube into Lake Constance, Eurofins can prove the sugar content in Lake Constance," says Rainer Herrmann, Managing Director of ABB Value Provider Elbatron GmbH, with a wink, describing the degree of precision of his customer Eurofins Dr. Specht Express GmbH. The laboratory, certified according to DIN 17025, tests food and feed qualitatively and quantitatively for a total of 800 different pesticides. If a sample is received in the morning, the corresponding analysis result must be available by 4 p.m. at the latest. Critical processes depend on the analysis, for example, when a container of food is waiting in the port or production stops until the sample has been examined. Even under the greatest time pressure, the analysis quality must remain reliably high.
Non-stop precision work
Until now, laboratory personnel have performed all process steps in pesticide analysis manually. Such monotonous, manual tasks are losing popularity with every new generation of skilled workers. In view of the shortage of skilled workers, it is a decisive competitive advantage for employers to relieve laboratory staff of repetitive "manual work".
"Chemical laboratory technicians have learned how to pipette and titrate, but in the modern working world it no longer makes sense to carry out these processes manually," explains Dr. Alexander Zahm, Managing Director of Eurofins Dr. Specht Express GmbH. "Rather, the profession is developing into applying the knowledge from their training to operate robots accordingly."
In order to free up the laboratory staff's capacity for more demanding tasks and to meet the increasing demands on quality and throughput, Eurofins decided to automate pesticide analysis. An inspiring success story was found in the sister laboratory: WEJ Contaminants had already had good experience with the automated analysis of food samples for mycotoxins. In addition, contact was established with the system integrator Elbatron, who was also commissioned with the special production for Eurofins. Elbatron has been supporting Eurofins in the industrialization of individual laboratory analysis since 2016.
Automating means translating processes
A central challenge in the design of the automated system was to reduce the complex processes in the laboratory to individual automatable motion sequences. "This plant was our first automation project, and we had to rethink it frequently," recalls Dr. Alexander Zahm. "At the beginning, we could hardly imagine what the robot could do for us. Together with our partner Elbatron, we have examined the solution step by step." In addition, there are also extremely high demands on accuracy in the processes, especially in dosing. Here, the laboratory benefits from the fact that robots are much less prone to errors than their human colleagues.
At the heart of the new system are three ABB six-axis robots of the type IRB 1200. Its wide range and working height, coupled with its wide range of motion, predestines it for filigree applications of this kind. In addition, the dimensions of the robots fit well with the size of the robot system. The samples are now processed fully automatically with high precision and repeatability to the ready-to-measure sample extract.
Once the samples have been entered, robots fill the trays, each holding ten samples. Up to 200 samples can be processed in a setup time, and up to 400 samples can be processed in a total of 24 hours. After the sample containers have been loaded, the trays with the samples travel along an assembly line to the dosing station. There, a robot uses a pipette to remove the required amount of fluid – dosing is done to the micrometer. QR codes are attached to the sample containers with information about the type of sample that is scanned by the robot. After extraction and salt addition, a robot shakes the sample. It is then placed in a centrifuge with a total of 16 spots. After centrifugation, a pipetting arm fills the treated sample into the vials. At the end of the day, the laboratory staff only has to remove the ready-to-measure vials.
Fully automatic sample preparation for pesticide analysis
The robot system was designed with the help of the proven planning software RobotStudio. "RobotStudio is a key argument for our cooperation with ABB, as hardly any software on the market meets our requirements at this quality level. We are particularly happy to use the VR function of RobotStudio," reports Rainer Herrmann. Thanks to Elbatron's experience in laboratory automation and the flexibility of ABB robots, complicated work steps are now automated. Only the sample input is carried out manually – in such a way that the system can operate autonomously for 12 hours without further intervention by the laboratory staff. The system is also designed to provide 24-hour operation when a growing order volume requires it in the future.
For Eurofins, the robot-based automation solution is a complete benefit. Thanks to their high repeatability and the low error rate compared to humans, the robots help the laboratory to reliably meet ever stricter quality standards. In the manual process, the fluctuation range of the results was 20 percent. With the robot system, it has dropped to less than 5 percent – with a higher throughput. The laboratory staff use the freed capacities to further optimize the analysis processes and to promote new methods of pesticide analysis. In the future, it is conceivable to expand the plant and also automate further steps in the analysis process. "The automation solution has fully met our requirements and offers potential for future projects," summarizes Dr. Alexander Zahm.