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Story 25: Design and Development of Electronic Pipettes (Part 1)

  • MPA Series
October 16, 2013

Design and Development of Electronic Pipettes (Part 1)
Naoto Izumo
R&D Division 5, A&D Company, Limited

For a long time in the past, the balance development team that I belong to was solely focused on the development of weighing devices. Within the field of weighing devices, we were responsible for the development of all types of balances applying electromagnetic sensor technology – from analytical to high-capacity models. As for devices not using an electromagnetic sensor, we handled the commercialization of a 1:60,000 resolution high-precision load cell-type scale, as well as a compact electrostatic capacitance scale, starting from the development of their sensors. On the other hand, the team also has a history of horizontal development of the base technologies used in electromagnetic balances, the redevelopment of a tuning fork vibro viscometer. We even worked on a heat-drying moisture analyzer which uses elements from mass measurement and calibration devices for pipettes which apply the gravimetric method, from early planning stages to development and sales promotion activities after the market launch. I think all of this different work provides examples of both vertical and horizontal product development, focused around base technologies.

All this development points to a direction that a manufacturing company can take in order to expand their operations. That is, focusing efforts around technology owned by the company and developing products which utilize those base technologies. It also demonstrates a plan for introducing new products to a market previously shaped by existing products.

Particularly in the laboratory market that uses balances, the three tools which are held in extremely high regard are the micropipette, the microscope and the analytical balance, which is typified by microbalances. All three of these items are commonly used in a variety of research fields. Having already released a range of microbalance in the market, we have now moved to the development and commercialization of electronic pipettes as strategic products in the laboratory market.

Starting with the pharmaceutical industry, use of micropipettes has spread to a wide range of fields for many different substances, including the biotech or genetic research, clinical trials, foodstuffs and cosmetics industries. They are now considered indispensable tools in the research field. These different fields are certainly markets which will grow in the future and more than 20 pipette makers are already crammed into the international market. A decade or two ago the annual market size for pipettes was around 1 million units per year, but that figure is now considered to have doubled to 2 million per year. However, most of the micropipettes presently being sold are manually operated types. In the research field, many researchers are performing pipette operation all day in order to create reagents or samples for use in various clinical assays, for proliferation of genes, etc. However, in these present circumstances manually operated pipettes could be said to present a number of problems for researchers.

Among the most concerning of these problems could be the risk of tendonitis or repetitive stress injury (RSI) developing on the thumbs of many researchers after repetitive operation over an extended period of time. Another problem is that for accurate dispensing, expert operation is required, and there is an individual variability between operators of up to 10-20% for aspirating and dispensing volumes. This causes variation in the sample size, and as a result, the level of precision in tests drops quite considerably. Moreover, as the amounts being dispensed are relatively small, they are principally used only in laboratories, and not on the production floor, making them not subject to management based on Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) guidelines. Because of this, in contrast to their importance as a testing device and their frequency of use, they are positioned as a device that is not for use in formal situations and are not given proper management. Further problems include the comparatively high cost of sending pipettes to an outside facility for repair or calibration, the lengthy duration this will take and the fact that traceability cannot be guaranteed in the following half year or year until the next calibration.

The problems mentioned above in relation to pipettes have been recognized for quite some time. However they have a history of being neglected as problems which cannot be solved. In response to this, A&D have taken a head start in the industry and commercialized a tool for volume management based on the gravimetric method using a weighing instrument, which allows compliance with the international standard for pipette management, ISO8655. A&D have also solved perhaps the biggest problem for pipettes of air leaks in the piston section with the release of a leak tester which can identify an air leak in an instant – a consideration which gives the end user a possible technique for self management of pipettes themselves.

And now, we have decided to introduce to the market our own originally-conceived pipette to answer some of the basic problems that are inherent in pipettes.

A&D's MPA series employs a power-operated system in order to prevent repetitive stress injuries and reduce the influence of individual variances in operation methods between users. There have been many proposed electronic pipettes in the past, but they did not receive very high praise in the market. This was because they were comparatively more expensive than manual pipettes and could not be used when the batteries died. Further, they were easily breakable and there was a high cost in time and money when they had to be repaired. There was also some concern regarding their performance. For models designed for dispensing large volumes, the electronic pipette took longer to do the job than experienced operators with a manual type device. Due to issues such as these, electronic pipettes presently only make up a mere 10% or so of the total pipette market.

In terms of limiting discrepancies in individuals' pipetting work and the gains in quality this adds to the work process, simplification of dispensing work and prevention of workplace injuries of researchers, electronic pipettes have a great many advantages over manual ones. However considering all the demerits which are also mentioned above, electronic pipettes are still not a popular device for many researchers. Reflecting on these negative aspects mentioned above, new functions have been added to our new design, with an improvement to basic performance, an increase in durability against falls and a record of calibration results which guarantees performance at the time of delivery. We further aimed to improve after sales service by providing an exchange of batteries after the device is in use, lengthening the warranty period and offering replacement devices while the purchased product is being repaired. We also set the price at a level that made it very competitive against manual devices.

By guaranteeing the above product specifications and our additional market services and by introducing new pipette management devices to the market, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) essential in the workplace can be properly established and compliance with Good Laboratory Practices (GLP) or Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) in the place of use is now also a possibility. With the researchers themselves taking responsibility for their pipette management, all gaps in traceability resulting from entrusting management of pipettes to outside organizations can be removed and efficient pipette use and management practice can now be thought of as achievable.

In tomorrow's laboratory, which will have to fully embrace the globalization of the research field, a full guarantee of traceability and device management which meets various regulatory standards is becoming increasingly important.

We are expecting our new electronic pipette MPA series to fully deliver a significant improvement in quality to the research field, together with our pipette management devices, with new functionality and services which greatly reduce the number of problems which can occur with the use of pipettes.

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