July 16, 2012      

Mahoro, a robotic lab technician, is taking robots one step closer to the white collar realm by donning the proverbial white coat.

In reality, robots have been a part of laboratory automation since the 1980s. When purchasing a system, however, the user has typically been confronted with a choice between investing in a robot or a workstation. Workstations can perform only one type of task but with minimal programming and high reliability. True robots can perform a greater range of tasks but involve complex programming. Mahoro responds to both needs.

The laboratory robot, co-developed in Japan by the National Institute of Advanced Science and Technology (AIST) and Yaskawa, is distinctive as much for his efficiency and versatility as his unique programmability.

Referred to as a general-purpose robot, Mahoro was designed to perform the repetitive tasks, such as dispensing and culturing, necessary in clinical tests with more accuracy than human technicians. When tested against veteran lab workers, the robot completed given tasks with better results and in half the time it took his human counterparts.

Mahoro’s unique programming capabilities also cut the costs associated with customizing laboratory systems for individual clinical trials. According to Forbes magazine, a single clinical trial can cost as much as $100 million, with billions being invested in the research and development of each drug on the market. With consumers constantly questioning the rising cost of pharmaceuticals, a highly versatile, automated solution is needed to save money by streamlining the process.

Safety first

Mahoro?s developers cite risk reduction, rather than job replacement, when discussing the robot?s role in the lab. Mahoro effectively saves human workers from exposure to the health risks often associated with lab testing.

?For example, to develop influenza drugs, we do infection trials every day, using virulent strains of influenza?we also have to do lots of tests with radioactive materials. Those should also be done by robots,? said Tohru Natsume, Team Leader of AIST?s Biological Systems Control Team.

While robots are also considered preferable to humans in sterile environments, the issue of robot contamination has yet to be completely resolved by the robotics or pharma-health industries.

Virtual control

Mahoro possesses seven axis points, which allow the robot to mimic a full range of hand, wrist and elbow movement.

Normally, intensive programming is required to control that many robotic joints, but Mahoro is taught new tasks in a virtual space, using a 3D scanner and CAD software.

Users scan the tools they want the robot to use, input the scanned data into a computer and, with a virtual bench and virtual robot, click in the direction they want the robot to move. This method of visual programming is much faster and simpler than line programming Mahoro each time a task is altered or a new task required.

?We also do collision simulations. Of course, we can freely change how various tools are arranged. So on the computer, we can simulate the best places to put them, and create movements. To do that, we don?t even need to put numbers into the advanced programming technology,? said Natsume.

Future developments will include improvements to make Mahoro safer to work side-by-side with humans. As those safety improvements are made, one can expect to see these programming methods utilized increasingly across industry sectors.

Mahoro is being sold by Nikkyo Technos and is reportedly utilized by a number of pharmaceutical companies and universities.

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