ABB robots aid rapid automated testing for COVID-19 virus

ABB robots aid rapid automated testing for COVID-19 virus

Taiwan’s first fully automated COVID testing system relies on ABB robots to achieve fast, accurate tests


The application:
Processing COVID-19 test samples  

The challenge:
Taiwanese company TCI Gene wanted an automated system that could rapidly and accurately test up to 1,800 COVID-19 samples a day, overcoming the shortage of trained staff and taking the strain off operators. Such an automated system would also greatly reduce the risk of staff coming into contact with the virus.   

The solution:
ABB small industrial robots operating as part of a fully enclosed modular testing solution scan specimen containers to capture identity data, add reagents and transport specimens between stations, ensuring rapid, accurate testing, while protecting staff.

Two ABB robots used in an automated COVID test system are helping a Taiwan based company test 96 virus samples in 60 minutes with an accuracy of 99.99%.

Developed by Taiwanese company TCI Gene, the QVS-96S is a fully integrated COVID detection system that uses robot arms to ensure that samples are correctly identified and tested to give the most accurate results.

Based on a machine designed for gene testing, the QVS-96S is a fully automatic, enclosed device to ensure samples remain uncontaminated throughout the testing process.

The QVS-96S consists of three stations, nucleic acid extraction, dispensing and analysis, with the first two stations using ABB IRB 1200 compact industrial robots.

Nucleic acid extraction begins with a technician loading the specimens to be tested. The IRB 1200 picks up the specimens and presents them to the barcode scanner to capture the data and ensure the measured results match with each specimen.  A custom-built machine then uncaps the specimens and extracts samples of ribo-nucleic acid (RNA) samples. Following this procedure, the IRB 1200 again picks up the specimens and places them in the second station.

At the second station, the other IRB 1200 is equipped with a specially designed gripper, which can dispense reagents to eight specimens at a time at the correct angle to avoid contamination of other samples.

After adding the reagents, the robot picks and places the specimens into a centrifuge, which ensures that no reagent residue is left, and that each specimen undergoes a perfect reaction. When this stage is complete, the robot picks and places specimens from the centrifuge to a conveyor to transport them to the third station.

The flexible IRB 1200 can be mounted at any angle and comes with IP 40 protection as standard, with other protection standards available as options. The two robots used in the QVS-96S were supplied with the enhanced Clean Room option. of the food handling area. With its easy to clean smooth surface, this option eliminates the potential for contamination either of the robot or the samples.

Faster, safer sample processing

Using the automated solution allows testing to proceed 24/7. The test results of 96 specimens can now be obtained in 60 minutes, a total of 1,800 a day, ensuring comprehensive monitoring and allowing a prompt response to the pandemic.

Aside from the greatly accelerated rate of sample processing, a major benefit of the automated system is its potential to eliminate physical strain on laboratory staff. The repetitive nature of the tasks involved in preparing the samples poses an increased risk of injury, with staff needing to perform each stage repeatedly for several hours a day.

Automating the tasks also cuts the risk of errors arising from fatigue, which could potentially compromise the validity of the sample testing.

Dr Arvin Chen, AI-STEM Chief Supervisor for TCI Gene, says: “The robotic system replaces the manual operations which have previously been conducted by well-trained technicians. With skilled lab technicians in short supply, automating the process allows available staff to be re-deployed to apply their skills to handling other tasks, improving their productivity.”

The cell is a modular design which means it can be adapted for testing other viruses such as flu. Its design ensures that the samples are fully contained, with staff fully protected against exposure to potential contaminants.

“While pandemics don’t happen often, this year has really highlighted the value of being able to respond quickly when they do,” Matt Tsai, Vice President of Robotics and Discrete Automation Business Taiwan.  “The application for TCI Gene is just one of a number of projects where ABB robots have been used to help tackle the COVID-19 virus, demonstrating how robotic automation can offer a fast, flexible and highly effective solution for the healthcare sector.” 


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