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LabAutomation 2001: A Conference That Continues to Thrive.

Laboratory automation has come a long way, and so has the annual laboratory automation conference, put on by Association for Laboratory Automation. When IBO first covered the conference in 1998 (see IBO 2/15/98), attendance was 1500 with 90 exhibitors. This year, LabAutomation 2001, held January 27-31 in Palm Springs, California, attracted over 2800 attendees and 120 exhibitors. Conference organizers estimate a 25% increase over last year's attendance.

With double-digit growth driven by genomic applications and pharmaceutical industry and academic expenditures, laboratory automation has become one of the fastest growing sectors of the analytical instrument market. What this year's conference highlighted was the new directions the techniques are taking and how new techniques and new applications are expanding the definition of what is classified as "laboratory automation." The conference also may have helped place the laboratory automation business in context. After all, as fast as some vendors' sales have grown, so has the laboratory environment and the goals of research. Although speed, cost and efficiency remain the ultimate goals, they are not the only ones. The industry has evolved to more creative uses of automation as well as to an understanding of the limitations of traditional automation. In addition, a decade and a half of laboratory automation has not only solved many problems but has created some new ones.

Foremost among these problems is the massive amounts of new data generated by automated techniques, particularly by sequencing and screening. Among the sessions at the conference addressing this area were "Software Frameworks for Integrating Lab Automation Systems", "Emerging Informatics Technologies for the Laboratory," "Combi Chem-Informatics" and "Genomics-Informatics." One speaker even referred to this era in laboratory automation as being "the age of informatics," citing the challenges of data accessibility, data quality and decision support tools. Although several presentations discussed the successful installation of time-saving, cost-efficient laboratory systems for the storage and tracking of data, many speakers touched on the continuing gap between the generation of data and analysis of such data. Approaches to this problem presented at the conference stressed integration of software and instruments, as well as the use of software to integrate instruments with each other. Other talks focused on image informatics, predictive modeling, and Internet applications. Software vendors at the exhibit included Silicon Genetics and NuGenesis Technologies.

Among the popular sessions at the conference were the talks on microfluidics. The enthusiasm for the technique exhibited in the talks would suggest that microfluidics is the next step in lab automation as it combines miniaturization with the integration of analytical instrumentation. Yet the promise of lab-on-a-chip for sample prep, separation and high-throughput is far from realized. The presentations presented some of the roles that microfluidics could play in tomorrow's labs including lab-on-a-chip technology's integration with electrospray mass spec and HPLC. But the commercial promise of the technique and its place within laboratory automation is still unknown, as evidenced by the lack of microchip vendor exhibits.

The other sessions centered on the traditional four "pillars" of laboratory automation," genomics, HTS, combinatorial chemistry and clinical applications. But what distinguished the topics of these talks from years past was an emphasis on an integrated approach and the role of lab automation techniques within larger systems and the adaptation of lab automation to these systems' needs. These systems can range from software for data organization to software for drug discovery as a whole. The Combinatorial Chemistry talks examined techniques such as organic synthesis, supercritical fluid chromatography and NMR. The Genomics session addressed sequencing, analytical aspects, arrays and SNPs. The Clinical sessions highlighted bio-repositories, total laboratory automation, the internet and point-of-care testing. However, there were far less clinical equipment vendors exhibiting products than in past years.

Vendors at the conference ranged from consumable companies to mass spec companies. The major players in the market, such as Tecan, Beckman Coulter, Zymark and CRS Robotics favored new, larger booths. The show continues to attract a large number of European companies and younger companies. Although the exhibit area was crowded opening night and the next day, sales people on the floor with whom IBO spoke said sales results were mixed. But many saw the show as a necessity in terms of visibility. Among the vendors were also a number of major instrument companies, including Applied Biosystems, Packard BioScience, PerkinElmer Life Sciences and Thermo Orion.

The conference, now in its fifth year, has increasingly become a popular venue for companies to introduce new products. New products introduced at the show included Beckman Coulter's Biomek FX Hit Picking Solution which includes a new 384-channel disposable tip pipetting head and Span 8, an independent eight-channel pipettor for the Biomek FX Liquid Handling System. In its press conference, the company noted that the secondary screening and chemistry markets are growing faster than the primary screening market. The company also emphasized its strategy of building strong alliances, noting its latest alliances with Cellomics, Promega and Xtrana. In addition, the company commented that high-throughput proteomics has yet to catch on as many companies are instead using their genomic automation systems for proteomics.

Zymark introduced a new High Density Transfer Station Module for the Allegro UHTS system, expanding its capacity to 1536 capacity. The company also introduced the SciClone Advanced Liquid Handling Workstation, new Personal Automation Manager software, the Twister II Advanced Capabilities Microplate Handler, new pass-back software for the Allegro Combo, and Twister/Rapid Place Interface software. In its press conference, the company stressed its focus on applications, collaborations and future "macro-micro" interfaces, that will integrate biochips into automation platforms.

Tecan also introduced a number of new products at the conference. The company's Genesis Freedom features automated centrifugation, enabling scalable automation of basic DNA extraction technologies. The Safire microplate reader is a monochromator-based microplate reader combining fluorescence and absorption measures. Packard Bioscience introduced the Talon integration platform for the MultiPROBE II series. Gene Machines released the OmniGrid Accent benchtop microarrayer. CRS Robotics also introduced a new product at the show , the POLARA v. 1.3, which includes features for 21 CFR Part 11 compliance.

The conference was well-run and the talks well-attended. The Palm Springs Convention Center is an ideal venue for the conference, as it provides enough room for expansion of the show but also preserves the intimate feel of the conference. And no doubt, the east coast visitors appreciated the California sunshine. LabAutomation 2002 will be held next year January 26-30 in Palm Springs.
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Publication:Instrument Business Outlook
Date:Jan 31, 2001
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