Automation Friendly Labware
Labware is one of the most crucial components that props up a solid lab automation system because everything must rely on the consistency of that shape to function properly. Plates, tubes, vials, racks: consistency is important for every piece. It's critical to select a labware that you can trust for these systems. Select a vendor that is reliable! This will make your automation experience much less positive.
A good indication of the consistency that a labware manufacturer will guarantee in their product can be found in the information documentation that they provide. Find the product on their website, and look for a technical specification sheet to show dimensions. If a company won’t readily share dimensions of their labware, that could be a warning sign of inconsistency.
Plates fit for an automation system need to be incredibly consistent. This can be an issue for lower quality manufacturers. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but everything for automation is designed to fit within what is referred to as 'SBS Footprint'. This is a standard that automation people will refer to in order to reference a rectangular piece of labware (like the 96 well plate shown below) that has the dimensions of ~127.76mm x 85.5 mm. This is important because the automation hardware designed to access and hold these labwares rely totally on this consistency. The length and width of these plates is always the same, but the height and shape of the plate wells comes in huge variety. Some plates are taller, with deep wells to hold more liquid. In our lab this includes deep well plates containing either 24 large wells, 48 smaller wells, or 96 wells with the circumference roughly the same as the smaller plate pictured below.
These plates are often prepared by the liquid handler, but then put into a queue for analysis downstream. Because of this, it's common practice to seal the plates. This is typically done with a device called a plate-sealer, which uses heat and mechanics to cut a piece off of a large role of aluminum seal and press it firmly onto the plate. These are commonly integrated directly to liquid handlers to handle this plate sealing in a hands-off way before the automation run finishes.
In a similar fashion, it's not uncommon for sealed plates to be used as inputs to experiments downstream, and for this a device known as the plate-peeler exists to reliably (as possible) rip that aluminum seal off and expose the wells of the labware to the liquid handler.
Vials and Tubes
Typically when you think automation-friendly vials / tubes (usually these terms are used interchangeably), you think of either threaded caps or piercable septum in the cap. This is the standard way to store finished compounds, which are often purified and then dissolved in a solvent like DMSO. This way each vial can be recalled individually for access to that purified compound, and it remains capped otherwise for long-term storage. The vials themselves as you can imagine come in a variety of sizes and shapes, just like the plates. But guess what doesn't - the racks that hold them.
Racks like the one shown above that are designed to hold automation friendly vials will be SBS format, so they can sit on the same space as the plates for access by liquid handlers. Like the wells in a plate, the bigger the vial is, the less of them that can fit within that SBS footprint. I commonly see vials in two formats, either this 96-vial format shown below for smaller volumes up to ~1 mL or larger vials in a 24-vial format tubes holding up to 6 mL.
If the vials have piercable caps, then then access is pretty straight forward. If the caps are threaded and designed for removal to provide vial access, then an instrument called a decapper can remove the vial caps for you, and put them back on after they have served their purpose.
Hold your solvents and reagents in here. It's a simple concept, but not all reagent troughs are created equal. These come is different sizes and shapes too, but a common and easy shape is the SBS format trough, which has the same footprint as the plates and thus can accommodate the automated pipette heads that handle liquid aspiration and dispense across the entire piece of labware in one shot.
I'm very partial to setups that utilize the peristaltic pump to plumb liquid into these troughs for the liquid handler to use, because it's really nice to have your reagent troughs fill themselves when you start your method. In order to accomplish this, I've had best success with a sensor that reads the liquid level straight through the plate. When the liquid gets to the height of the sensor, the pumps trips and the trough stops filling. In order to do this, you need troughs that have think enough walls for the sensor to see through.
Bar Codes For All
This allows you not only to retain precise traceability over all of your experiment plates, but also it allows you to set up workflows in interestingly flexible ways. I like to get my labware pre-barcoded by the vendor to ensure it's the same exact formatting and location every time. For instruments to be able to function this way, bar code placement is essential. For this reason, if you have a fancy automated workflow, but you are still manually applying bar codes to the labware that you want to use, then I do not envy you.
This is one of the most crucial things to be consistent about, because a kink in a read will likely be indicative of an issue and at the worst case scenario will require manual intervention! Choose wisely.