SCARA robots with a sting in the tail
Copan uses two Toshiba Machine SCARA robots in its Walk Away Specimen Processor (WASP ® )
Many clinical laboratories are experiencing growing shortages of trained microbiology technologists while at the same seeing increasing workloads. Consequently, there is considerable interest in new automation that could potentially lessen labour demands for specimen processing. As a result, Copan in Italy developed the Walk Away Specimen Processor (WASP ® ), using Toshiba Machine industrial robots. Here Nigel Smith, of TM Robotics ( Europe ) Ltd explains the application.
Clinical microbiology laboratories have largely been bypassed by the advances in automation that have benefitted other areas of the clinical laboratory in recent years. Continuously monitoring blood culture systems, automated microbial identification and susceptibility testing systems are widely used. However, specimen processing and culture workup specifically remain manual tasks and few changes to the methods used to perform these tasks have been made in the recent past.
It was against this background that Copan developed their revolutionary liquid based microbiology approach and WASP ® , to automate the entire task of sample processing, thus streamlining operations. The WASP ® automatically de-caps, plants and streaks culture plates, inoculates broth media, prepares Gram slides and recaps specimens in seconds. It has a throughput capacity equivalent to at least two or three full time people, which allows labs to expand their volume potential. The machine can free laboratory staff to do more valuable tasks and is a much needed solution at a time of diminishing human resources. Of course, WASP ® is also designed to work on a 24/7 basis, meaning that testing can continue throughout the night and weekend making the instrument extremely cost efficient.
WASP ® emulates exactly what the technologist normally does; it automatically opens the specimen container, dips in a loop, and plants the sample onto a plate then streaks the plate using traditional quadrant streaking techniques. If instructed to do so by the specimen processing protocol, the WASP ® will also decap a culture broth tube and inoculate a loop full of specimen into the broth and re-close the cap. It also has the ability to prepare a Gram slide for microscopic examination.
While other instruments just plant and streak, WASP ® performs the entire task of specimen processing without the technologist needing to handle the sample. This capability is due to the versatility of the robotics and ingenious software programming and it distinguishes the WASP ® from any other instrument on the market.
WASP ® also features a camera and vision system that detects the presence of a droplet inside the inoculating loop after the specimen is sampled. The machine will return to the container any number of times for additional samples if more plates need to be seeded or, if required, it will automatically close the specimen container and move on to the next specimen. If the camera fails to ultimately detect a droplet, the tube is moved to a discard bin.
WASP ® is unique in that it provides a single universal automated instrument platform for the rapid processing of liquid phase microbiology samples. Historically the user would have been restricted by specimen container style or specimen type. In contrast, ESwab capability combined with urines and fecal sample capacity means the vast majority of bacteriology specimens can now be planted and streaked automatically. WASP ® also has an impressive volume capacity of at least 180 urines, throat swabs or nasal swabs per hour and also has the flexibility to manage complex plate media sets used for wound swabs, vaginal swabs or fecal samples, utilising its unique nine silo carousel.
WASP ® also has the potential to process containers of different sizes. The jaws on the robot have three settings to accommodate three sizes of containers, although in theory any setting size could be developed by adapting the robot mechanism. There are three docking stations to hold the bottom of the container during the uncapping process and these also accommodate containers of three different sizes. Furthermore, the docking station can easily be swapped out allowing for additional sizes to be used.
The WASP ® features a universal decapping device which enables it to remove and replace all types of screw caps or rubberize press-on caps. This allows WASP ® to manage all manner of container styles.
Laboratories can choose from a library of pre-programmed streak patterns or design and save their own. Unlike spiral plating devices with the WASP ® there is no necessity to retrain staff to read plate cultures as the instrument uses text book style streaking patterns. WASP ® produces accurate growth separation and colonial isolation every time.
The system has recently been proven as accurate as conventional methods of testing by the Geisinger Medical Centre (GMC) in Danville , Pennsylvania . The GMC tested applications from plating inoculated and sterile specimen tubes and plating of urine specimens to the plating of specimens in ESwab tubes. The ability of the WASP ® to subculture enrichment broths was also evaluated, with the results proving identical to those obtained by testing using routine methods.
The WASP ® incorporates two Toshiba Machine SCARA robots, a TH250 and a TH450. The first robot moves specimens and plated media and takes specimens to one of the decapping device, while the second robot does the actual plate inoculation and streaking, broth inoculation and Gram slide preparation. Barcode readers on the WASP ® scan the specimen tube, and a printer prints specimen information and a bar code on a label that is placed on the plated media.
All specimens are loaded on the WASP ® by using special Teflon pallets that contain holes that are sized for specific containers. Up to six pallets can be loaded onto the instrument simultaneously, resulting in a maximum load of 72 Vacutainer tubes or ESwab tubes at one time. The WASP ® also has vortex apparatus and a spinner/centrifuge that can be used to prepare specimens for plating.
Maintenance and service assistance is simplified by the inclusion of a Webcam and VOiP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) which allows direct connection with a service engineer. This makes incorporating industrial robots into a laboratory application as easy as using any other form or automation or assigning the task to human personnel.
ASP ® can be found throughout North America and Europe, in countries including the United States , Canada , Belgium , Italy , the UK , Holland , and France . After a relatively short time on the market there are already more than 50 WASP ® instruments in routine use across Europe and North America, with many more planned installations soon. There may well be a shortage of trained technologists and technicians in the microbiology industry, but there is no shortage of faith in robotics.