Case Study: Automated Microbiology Specimen Processor

Project and Challenges

Rotalec was engaged to improve an automated specimen processor.

A small Canadian company needed to improve how they automated specimen analysis within their lab.

They faced the following challenges:

  • Complex Requirements:

The need for precise timing, large quantities, and ability to process different sample types necessitated a complex machine that would require a special custom design from prototype to production.

  • Large Number of Steps and High Need for Accuracy:

Specimen analysis involves many interconnected steps from beginning to completion. Each step is interlinked and must be completed with high accuracy.

  • Reducing Human Intervention:

Automating front-end specimen processing would require technology that eliminated or minimized user intervention and provided long “walk-away” periods.

  • Budget Restrictions:

As a small microbiology company, the customer’s budget was limited, requiring an innovative solution be delivered within certain cost parameters.
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Rotalec's Solution

Rotalec sourced components and developed a 22 closed loop servo-axis specimen tester that integrated motion control to simplify lab automation.

We supplied components and created a motion control solution to address specific customer requirements and budgetary restrictions. We also conducted a Motion Audit Report to validate the machine.

Consulting, Design, and Supply of Recommended Components

Rotalec was involved in all aspects of the motion control component selection based on initial design requirements. Consulting with the client and their in-house design engineers, we recommended specific products and a motion control architecture that would meet their particular requirements.

We sourced components, including linear actuators, precision stages, rotary servo motors, direct drive motors both linear and rotary, and associated motion controls and sensors. The motion control was provided by three different controller manufacturers and four different motor suppliers for a total of seven different Motion Control manufacturers.

Once the design was approved, we worked closely with our suppliers to ensure the customer’s engineers and developers had the support they required to deliver a solution within the target cost-per-axis.

We also offered engineering support services for motion programming and optimization.

Technical Highlights

  • Distributed Control Architecture using real-time deterministic and scalable CANopen fieldbus for Motion and I/O.
  • Simplified wiring, as distributed control allowed servo amplifier/controllers to be placed in close proximity to the motors.
  • Hard stop machine referencing eliminated the complexity, cost, and wiring of reference sensors.
  • Absolute encoders on critical axis eliminated the requirement for machine referencing upon power-up.
  • Products used included precision gearheads, precision linear stages, linear direct drive tubular motors, rotary direct drive rotary motors, and captive leadscrew linear actuators.
  • 22 axis of precision closed loop feedback servo control powered by a single 600 watt 48VDC power supply allowed use anywhere in the world.

Capability Highlights

  • Completely enclosed design with HEPA filtration to continually circulate clean air.
  • Automatically performed tasks of agitation, de-capping, plating, streaking, re-capping, and barcode application.
  • Ability to identify different types of specimens and automatically process specimens according to the unique protocol linked to that specimen type (e.g. urine, swabs, etc.).
  • Compatible with all caps, trays, and plates from major manufacturers.
  • No requirement for users to manually change any parts when processing different specimen types.
  • Ample room for many plates and specimens.
  • Intuitive touch screen control and optional laboratory information system (LIS) connectivity.
  • Detection systems in place to ensure accuracy (e.g. liquid is properly retrieved from container and dispensed, barcode is placed on completed specimens, etc.).

Motion Audit Report

After the machine was built, we conducted a Motion Audit Report, providing validation of original specification requirements supported with key measurement metrics.

The Result

The client was able to market and sell itself and its technology to a large medical equipment multinational company.

Key Benefits of the Technology:

  • Highly repeatable testing, ensuring the same precise conditions for each specimen.
  • Automation eliminates human errors and increases quality of results.
  • Increased efficiency and productivity by enabling a much higher volume of specimens per day with minimal human intervention.
  • Precise measurements and timing.
  • Fast instrument throughput.
  • Long walk-away time, up to one hour.
  • Improved traceability with automatic application of barcodes on completed specimens.
  • Initial budgetary objectives were met even as production volumes increased.
  • Components were validated both individually and as a system.
  • Machine had a small energy footprint.
  • Allowed better allocation of staff time and resources.

Rotalec was this client’s motion control partner through conception, development, and mature product offering. Even after the purchase of this Canadian company and its technology to a large US multinational, Rotalec continues to be a valued component supplier and engineering resource.
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