The modern laboratory is changing. Over recent decades, scientific advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, cutting-edge sensor technology, the Internet of Things (IoT), and more have revolutionized how we run laboratories. One huge benefit that has come from leveraging these advancements is the implementation of automation. Here, we discuss how the UR3e robot by Universal Robots is facilitating the adoption of workflow automation in laboratories.
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What Is Laboratory Automation and Why Is It Beneficial?
Laboratory automation is the process of implementing automated technologies that reduce the need for human intervention. Often, automating laboratory workflows has the impact of improving workflows, making them more efficient, less prone to error, and safer.
For example, with automation, robots can be used to replace human workers in the execution of low-skilled, repetitive work. Replacing humans with robots in these tasks eradicates human error and increases productivity. In addition, it removes humans from having to come into contact with potentially harmful substances, thus increasing operational safety. Further to this, modern automation technology often has a small physical footprint, which can reduce the space needed to run an operation, thus bringing down overheads.
Many laboratories are currently adopting workflow automation, such as those involved in high-throughput screening, combinatorial chemistry, clinical and analytical testing, diagnostics, large-scale biorepositories, and more. The capabilities of these modern laboratories would not be as developed if automation technology did not exist. Next, we explore one commonly used technology within the automated lab - the cobot.
What Is a Cobot and What Industries Use Them?
The term ‘cobot’ stands for ‘collaborative robot’, a robot that has been developed to work alongside people rather than completely alone. In recent decades, the cobot has become widely adopted across a number of industries, including food, plastics, packaging, electronics, pharmaceuticals, automotive, metal, and of course, in laboratories across industries.
Cobots differ from traditional robots in that they are specifically designed to work alongside humans, often taking over the bulk of the task under the supervision of a human. To achieve this, cobots are often designed with soft robotics grip systems that allow them to handle a range of delicate materials. They also incorporate cutting-edge sensor technology, which enables them to interact with their environment intelligently. Cobots are also designed with safety modes, which they transition into if they are interrupted in their workflow for any reason.
How Is the UR3e Impacting the Lab Automation Space?
Danish manufacturer of collaborative robot arms, Universal Robots, has developed a range of cobots, including the UR3e - a tabletop cobot capable of handling tasks that require precision and light assembly. Alongside the UR3e, Universal Robots produces the UR5e, the UR10e, UR16e, and UR20. Its range of cobots aims to meet the automation needs of industries such as automotive, electronics, metal and machining, food and beverage, plastic and polymers, medical, education, and more.
Specifically, the UR3e cobot has been designed to work in tight spaces, allowing the same tasks to be conducted in smaller spaces than conventional workflows. The cobot can handle light assembly tasks and can be directly built into other machinery. It is also easy to program, so it can rapidly switch between tasks to meet agile laboratory needs. It also removes the need for humans to carry out repetitive tasks or ones that require contact with dangerous substances. The UR3e is part of Universal Robots’ e-Series, the ‘e’ standing for empowering, ease of use, everyone and evolution.
In 2022, the global collaborative robots market was valued at $1.23 billion. It is expected to grow rapidly at a CAGR of 32% from 2023 to 2030. Much of this growth can be attributed to the rapidly increasing adoption of cobots, particularly in small and medium enterprises, as people begin to recognize their vast benefits. The UR3e cobot meets the needs of this expanding market by offering a cost-effective, versatile, and user-friendly product.
What Challenges Need to Be Overcome in the Future?
While the cobot industry is fast-growing, there are a number of challenges that still need to be overcome before it can reach its full potential. For example, there is a huge opportunity to improve the capabilities of cobots by integrating artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies into these robots. Currently, cobots are not self-learning. While the UR3e is easy to program, it cannot learn from doing. Laboratory automation would benefit from developing advanced cobots that leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to interact intelligently with their environment.
In addition, while cobots reduce the reliance on human workers, they can require the up-skilling of those who work with them. Staff may have worked in laboratories for many years, running workflows in a traditional manner. Implementing any new technology calls for up-skilling, particularly one that changes the nature of the work.
While these challenges need to be met, the future of the cobot in lab automation is promising, and we will likely see technological advancements in the coming years as the industry continues to grow and evolve.
References and Further Reading
THE UR3e [Online]. Universal Robots. Available at: https://www.universal-robots.com/products/ur3-robot/
Collaborative Robots Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Payload Capacity, By Application (Assembly, Handling, Packaging, Quality Testing), By Vertical, By Region, And Segment Forecasts, 2023 - 2030 [Online]. Grand View Research. Available at: https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/collaborative-robots-market (Accessed on March 2023)
David Greenfield. (2018) Universal Robots' New e-Series Unveiled, and Researched at Autodesk [Online]. Automation World. Available at: https://www.automationworld.com/products/software/news/13319003/universal-robots-new-eseries-unveiled-and-researched-at-autodesk
Harry Menear. (2020) The rise of the ‘cobots’ [Online]. Technology Magazine. Available at: https://technologymagazine.com/ai-and-machine-learning/rise-cobots
Upskilling for a future with collaborative robots [Online]. Gov Insider. Available at: https://govinsider.asia/intl-en/article/upskilling-for-a-future-with-collaborative-robots-ntuc-learninghub