April 07, 2014      

A fully-functioning prototype of the desktop-size, lab automation robot PetriJet went on display at Analytica in Munich, Germany as the team behind the robot prepares for the arrival of its first commercial customers.

The bot is aimed at small-to-medium size laboratories looking for an affordable way to automate processes such as quality assurance screening campaigns and active agent developments.

Early adopters are expected to come from the biotechnology and food processing industries. These are among the industries urgently looking for ways to automate time-consuming manual laboratory procedures such as the filling of culture dishes with nutrient medium, the transfer of cultures from one dish to another and culture inspection and evaluation.

In its current configuration, the (31.4 x 15.7 x 25.5 in; less than 44lb) PetriJet has a feeding stack of 20 culture dishes and can handle over 100 dishes per hour, providing 5 megapixel images and a range of image analysis capabilities.

Image analysis frees technicians up from several tasks, including the detection and counting of cell colonies and analyzing cell cultures for complex patterns. Control images can be taken automatically for archival and verification of the accuracy of the PetriJet’s readings.

Pictures taken by the PetriJet’s ‘PetriCam’: blue agar, lactic acid bacteria (left); red root network, Hairy root of Beetroot (middle); green sample cultures, callus cells from apple plants (right).

The robot offers advantages over other lab automation systems, Felix Lenk, of the Institute of Food Technology and Bioprocess Engineering at Dresden University of Technology (DUT), tells Robotics Business Review.

?PetriJet is the only bench-top solution available in the market. It even fits under a clean bench,” says Lenk. “Uniquely, it can process sealed culture dishes and requires only electrical power. Plus, a wide range of image analysis algorithms are available through our co-operation partner Wimasis Image Analysis, Munich, Germany.?

PetriJet also offers several advantages compared to a human technician, says Lenk. It is easy to set up, faster, more reliable, and produces more consistent results.

For high-throughput tasks, PetriJet is cheaper than hiring a human for the same task, and can be adapted to tasks from medium dispensing to the automatic transfer of samples from one dish to another.

The robot can be configured and operated via the browser on a tablet, PC or smartphone.

PetriJet is commercially available to end-users with a target price in its current configuration – 1 x 20 culture dish feeding stack, 100 images per hour, and basic image analysis – of around $55.000.

From Idea to Product

The journey from R&D to fully-functioning prototype to commercially-available product began in 2012, with a research proposal from the Department of Bioprocess Engineering at DUT.

The proposal attracted development funding of $226,000 from the German federal government under the country’s Central Innovation Programme for small-to-medium size businesses (SMEs).

In January 2013, in partnership with life sciences imagery specialists WIMASIS Image Analysis, Munich, development began and the first fully-functional prototype was completed in November 2013.

DUT owns GWT-TUD, a research expertise transfer company designed to help researchers sell commercial services and devices to end-customers, and it is through this company that the device is being sold, says Lenk.

If PetriJet really takes off, and large numbers of the robot are required, developers will be encouraged to set up a spin-off using EXIST, a federal program designed to improve the entrepreneurial environment at German universities and research centers.

The entire project is a good example of how public-private partnership can flourish when the right structures are in place.

PetriJet is part of a high-velocity trend in which robots are starting to become affordable for SMEs.

?The lab automation market needs compact, easy to use, and affordable devices for these customers,? explains Lenk.