At the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center last week, a smiling robot followed visitors around. Called Plato, the robot is effectively a stack of platters on a mobile base—an autonomous version of a three-tiered bar cart.
Plato was originally designed for the hospitality industry. Hotel cleaners could stack dirtied room-service plates on it, for instance, then send it away to the kitchen while they continued working.
But this year, Plato’s maker, United Robotics Group (URG), has updated it for use in the life sciences and health care industries. The new Plato, called Plato Flex, will be equipped with a pegboard instead of shelves so that users can slot in different types of containers, including high-sided bins. That will enable the robot to handle liquids, which would be at risk of spilling on the current Plato’s shelves.
Plato was among hundreds of robots on display at the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS) 2024 convention in Boston from Feb. 5 to 7. It was one of just a few mobile robots, but more of them are coming, marketers said, as robots increasingly jostle for space with humans in the research lab.
All laboratory bots were originally stationary: You’d mount an arm on a table or counter, so it would stay out of humans’ way while it placed microtiter plates or tipped pipettes. Mobility, companies like URG contend, makes for more flexible, simplified workflows.
URG is also marketing other robots that move around independently like “high-end Roombas,” as marketing project coordinator Ayne Mitzi Cruz put it. Earlier this year, the firm debuted an upgraded version of Kevin, a robotic arm mounted on a mobile base. The arm picks and places plates and other lab supplies, while the mobile base allows it to move around labs as if it were just another technician, said Sarah Ostertag, product manager and general design lead for the robot. That means labs don’t have to be reconfigured around Kevin.
“With a mobile base, you have the lab as it is,” Ostertag said. “You can have people working with the robots.”
Brooks Automation, a robotics firm headquartered in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, will debut two upgraded robots this summer: the PreciseFlex c3 and PreciseFlex c5. The new versions will be able to reach farther and handle heavier payloads. Brooks also recently added vision technology to its PreciseFlex robots, so they can analyze objects and read barcodes via tiny cameras.
“What we are doing here is adding vision in the gripper of the robot, so if things are not fixed and they shift, as they often do in the lab, it will detect that and update its location so the lab can stay running,” said Tim DeRosett, Brooks’ director of product.
Kevin, URG’s robot, incorporates a PreciseFlex robotic arm that can read barcodes and sense plates with its gripper. So does a robot from the Dutch company Lab Services, which integrated PreciseFlex into one of its PlateButler robots; the product line spans capabilities from modular pipette tip storage to lid replacement. Like all robots, the PlateButler PreciseFlex is designed to work more quickly and safely than a human can.
And hiring isn’t the challenge that it is with human staff. In the US, job vacancy rates have been increasing across lab position types over the last several years; core laboratory positions had 18% vacancy in 2022, according to the most recent national survey from the American Society for Clinical Pathology.
Robots, in many cases, are stepping in. They are pipetting, labeling test tubes, uncapping and recapping samples, and even moving lab mice around.
“To be able to relieve a lot of precious hands is very important at this time,” says Maurice van den Brule, a global key account manager at Lab Services. “It’s quite difficult to find personnel in a laboratory who are knowledgeable about the assays. Picking up plates, putting a seal on it, putting a label on it, all this can be done by a robot.”