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Automated Virus Dispensing System for Rhinovirus Testing

Cyth’s automated dispenser fills test slides with liquid viral contents.

The Challenge

A biopharmaceutical research and development company approached us with the need for a system to automate the process of dispensing viral content onto test slides.

The Solution

By using hardware, software, and robotics, we created a solution that increased the customer’s throughput of available testing samples by over 300% and ensured greater safety protocols for their laboratory.

The Story//The Cyth Process

A biopharmaceutical company approached us with a process bottleneck they were facing in their research and development laboratories. They had operators dispensing samples of 8 various respiratory diseases (including rhinovirus and influenza) one by one, by hand, onto testing slides. This timely process was highly inefficient and held back their ability to scale up their testing volumes.

Figure 1. 1: A heated stirring plate. 2: A 16-channel peristaltic pump. 3: A stack of clean slides. 4: The Denso 6-axis robot with its custom fabricated gripper. 5: An indexing rotary table with a drying rack for slides.

Our team began by designing a workflow that efficiently used hardware, software, and robotics to increase the client’s throughput of virus slides for testing.

The workflow’s steps were as followed:

  1. A heated stirring plate (1) prepared viral content by keeping eight separate viruses suspended in a liquid medium.

  2. A 16-channel peristaltic pump (2) pumped the various viruses to the liquid dispensing nozzles.

  3. A Denso 6-axis robot arm (4) would pick up an available testing slide (3) from a stack, the robot arm would position the slide underneath nozzles for liquid dispensing at an accuracy of 5 to 30uL ±10%, and after viral content was dispensed the robot arm moved the slide to a drying rack to vaporize.

  4. After a drying rack of test slides was full an indexing rotary table (5) would rotate to an available rack which allowed for a total of 1000 testing slides to be created every 2-hour cycle, (approx. 1 slide every 7 secs).

Developing a machine control architecture within LabVIEW required us to control and monitor several different inputs and outputs. These were the robot movements, sensor and camera I/O, and data acquisition hardware.

Our team’s first step was programming a Denso 6-axis robot to dynamically follow a preset routine of positions. Several of the movements in its routine were fixed, such as the location of picking up new test slides, but several positions were dynamic or subject to changes in its environment. For example, when placing a dispensed test slide on a drying rack the robot had to dynamically sense the next available slot. This was made possible using Sick proximity sensors, and a high-definition camera mounted to the robot’s gripper manifold. The sensors gave the robot critical information about its positioning relative to surrounding objects, and a camera with machine vision software gave the robot the ability to make subjective decisions critical in a dynamic environment.

The programming of the robot’s highly complex routine was made possible by using NI TestStand. TestStand was the supervisory sequencing software that ran LabVIEW executables, logic engines, and threads required for machine control and robot positioning. Partnered with TestStand was the NI PXI platform we used for the robot system’s data acquisition. The PXI chassis offered a built-in industrial computer and adjustable modules, giving us the high-speed I/O and capabilities required for Modbus and RS485 communication protocols.

At Cyth we consider operational safety a critical component for any system that involves robotics. Our development team created a safety control loop that would instantly take over control of the system if any unsafe conditions were identified. A light curtain was installed surrounding the robot’s enclosure that would engage an emergency stop sequence if it tripped in any fashion. This was critical because if the robot was engaged in high-speed movements regardless of operator involvement all functions would cease in the case of an emergency.

Adding to the enclosure’s safety was the use of a biological safety cabinet to contain the infectious diseases that were dispensed onto testing slides. According to our client’s guidance, we used a Biological Safety Level II hood which used laminar airflow to suction all molecules present outside the liquid medium, ensuring no escape or spread of the viruses under test.

Respiratory viruses under test:

· Rhinovirus (common cold)

· Influenza (common flu)


Delivering the Outcome

Our engineering team was able to deliver a full turnkey solution for the creation of our client’s viral test slides. Using hardware, software, and robotics, we increased the customer’s throughput of test slide creation by over 300% while ensuring a high safety measure for their laboratory. The sequencing we were able to achieve in NI TestStand allowed us to provide the logic and threads necessary to run a LabVIEW machine control architecture and direct the robot’s complex routine. Overall, by collaborating with the client to provide a cost-effective solution within their budget and timeline Cyth was to deliver a tool that has assisted in furthering the efficiency of virus research.

Technical Specifications

1 x 1300 Series Class II, Type A2 Biological Safety Cabinet (Thermofischer)

1 x 6-stop Indexing Rotary Table

1 x Denso 6 axis robot

1 x Watson Marlow 520Di Peristaltic Pump Drive (16 channel)

1 x Basler Camera 4 Megapixel Color

1 x Edmund Optics Telecentric Lens

1 x SONY Mini Pinhole Lens Camera

1 x PXI 8 Slot Chassis

1 x PXI 6514

1 x PXI 6225

8 x Sick Proximity Sensors

4 x Safety Light Curtain Sender and Photoelectric Sensor

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