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Journal of Automated Methods and Management in Chemistry
Volume 22 (2000), Issue 5, Pages 133-138

Automation — down to the nuts and bolts

R. J . Reynolds Tobacco Co., Winston-Salem 27102-1487, NC, USA

Copyright © 2000 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Laboratories that once viewed automation as an expensive luxury are now looking to automation as a solution to increase sample throughput, to help ensure data integrity and to improve laboratory safety. The question is no longer, ‘Should we automate?’, but ‘How should we approach automation?’ A laboratory may choose from three approaches when deciding to automate: (1) contract with a third party vendor to produce a turnkey system, (2) develop and fabricate the system in-house or (3) some combination of approaches (1) and (2). The best approach for a given laboratory depends upon its available resources. The first lesson to be learned in automation is that no matter how straightforward an idea appears in the beginning, the solution will not be realized until many complex problems have been resolved. Issues dealing with sample vessel manipulation, liquid handling and system control must be addressed before a final design can be developed. This requires expertise in engineering, electronics, programming and chemistry. Therefore, the team concept of automation should be employed to help ensure success. This presentation discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the three approaches to automation. The development of an automated sample handling and control system for the STAR™ System focused microwave will be used to illustrate the complexities encountered in a seemingly simple project, and to highlight the importance of the team concept to automation no matter which approach is taken. The STAR™ System focused microwave from CEM Corporation is an open vessel digestion system with six microwave cells. This system is used to prepare samples for trace metal determination. The automated sample handling was developed around a XYZ motorized gantry system. Grippers were specially designed to perform several different functions and to provide feedback to the control software. Software was written in Visual Basic 5.0 to control the movement of the samples and the operation and monitoring of the STAR™ microwave. This software also provides a continuous update of the system's status to the computer screen. The system provides unattended preparation of up to 59 samples per run.