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Powering ultra-fast action of biotech lab automation

An advanced linear motion system is behind the groundbreaking performance of Singer Instruments' innovative biotech laboratory robot for pinning arrays of cells - the RoToR.


This benchtop automation is revolutionizing genetic, genome and cancer research by being able to manipulate over 200,000 yeast or bacteria cell samples per hour. This unprecedented speed – up to an order of magnitude faster than previous lab automation – is changing the way that many biotech labs work. One of Singer’s robots often now typically services several laboratories, with users just booking short time slots on it for replicating, mating, re-arraying or backing up yeast or bacteria libraries.

RoToR is managed by a compact real-time controller from Baldor called NextMove ESB-2. This module controls the three axes of motion that perform RoToR’s point-to-point pinning action, as well as a sample handling axis, interfacing to the machine’s Windows-based graphical user interface, and all the I/O channels required.

Singer Instruments chose NextMove ESB-2 because it incorporated all the real-time stepper and servo motion and machine control facilities they needed, and more – giving it the flexibility to expand and evolve the RoToR design in the future.

Baldor provided Singer Instruments with the complete machine control package, comprising the NextMove controller with its built-in I/O – plus some expansion I/O to handle the large number of sensors and pneumatic actuators on this sophisticated robot – a linear servo motor and drive, and three integrated stepper motor and drive modules. The controller takes care of all the machine and motion control tasks, under the direction of a Windows user interface, which is interfaced via ActiveX commands. 

The major movements that the machine makes are point-to-point transfers from source to destination plates along a linear servo motor axis that spans the width of the machine. This axis carries a two-axis stepper motor head that controls the pinning action. The combined X-Y-Z movement can also stir the samples using a sophisticated helical motion with the help of Baldor’s Mint language and development environment – an action used particularly when manipulating samples to or from liquid wells.

There is also another stepper motor axis that controls the loading mechanism for the pin pads.

Other movements, such as the pick up and disposal of pinheads at the start and end of operations, are controlled by simple pneumatic grippers and rotators. A key to the machine’s throughput is the use of Singer’s unique high-density sample plates and matching plastic pinhead arrays, which allow manipulation of as many as 6144 cell samples in a single stage.

Baldor helped with the design choice by agreeing to produce a special version of a brushless linear servo motor with some mechanical modifications to the linear track that allows it to be supported at the ends alone – rather than along its length. This allows the linear motor’s forcer to become an X-axis gantry that carries the additional Y and Z axes. The Y and Z axes are based on Baldor’s DSMS family of ultra-compact micro-stepping motors with onboard drive electronics. The linear motor – from Baldor’s LMCF series – is another novel product with a special magnet design that minimizes the cogging effect to ensure extremely smooth operation.

A video of the RoToR in action can be seen at http://ow.ly/4qm1A.
www.baldor.com