CROSS-REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS
FIELD OF THE INVENTION
This application is a continuation of application Ser. No. `09/496,100 filed Feb. 1, 2002, by JoeBen Bevirt and Gabriel Noah Brinton, entitled “ROBOT MOUNTED BARCODE READER,” incorporated herein in its entirety by reference.
- DESCRIPTION OF THE RELATED ART
This invention relates to an apparatus and method for identifying objects in automated platform.
In the field of molecular biology, the process of sequencing nucleic acids has become significant as more and more diseases are linked to genetic abnormalities. The process of identifying genes and their corresponding proteins for potential therapeutic applications is well known.
Other types of molecular biology procedures are also important for therapeutic and research purposes including DNA restriction mapping, DNA probe generation, replication, DNA sample processing, and cycle sequencing. Generally, these procedures involve a substantial number of steps including, without limitation, automated liquid handling, robotic movement of the samples, pipetting of small amounts of many different reagents into a sample, and heating the samples within a given temperature range. These protocols include a lengthy series of steps which must be performed in the correct order with absolute precision. Further, such assays are often done on multiple samples that require the manipulation of samples in sample carriers in a uniform fashion.
For instance, during clinical analysis of blood chemistry, various reagents and catalysts are mixed with blood samples in given amounts and in particular sequences. This analysis can yield the level of HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, lipids, etc. present in the blood. By having multiple samples in a sample carrier, several samples may be analyzed at any give time. Similarly, in the area of new drug discovery, it is desirable to investigate numerous candidates for therapeutic agents. Given the great number of potential candidates, automated testing is desirable.
Because of the expense of the equipment required to perform these protocols accurately, increasing the throughput of the equipment performing these protocols becomes important for laboratories such as microbiology laboratories. It is desirable to increase the rate at which these protocols are performed while retaining, or even increasing, the quality of performance of the protocols. Automation is one method by which the rate of performing the protocols may be increased. By increasing the rate at which these protocols are performed, the protocols may be performed at a reduced price.
Regardless of the type of experiment to be performed, sample carriers are generally employed so that more than one sample may be processed at any given time. For example, microtitre plates are generally utilized in these sample analysis protocols. Microtitre plates are plastic plates containing uniformly-spaced cavities for holding various liquids. Generally, these commercially available microtitre plates contain eight rows of twelve microwells for an industry-standard ninety-six microtitre plate, or sixteen rows of twenty-four microwells for an industry-standard three hundred eighty-four microtitre plate. Other sizes are also commercially available.
It is generally known to perform a protocol with automation as follows. Multiple microtitre plates are stacked in one location. A transfer mechanism transfers one of the microtitre plates to a robotic arm. The robotic arm transports the microtitre plate to the desired station, e.g. a pipetting station. The robotic arm then takes the microtitre plate to the next station, and so on until the desired protocol has been performed on that microtitre plate.
Throughout the process, each of the microtitre plates must be tracked and inventoried with precision so that the contents of each of the microtitre plates is always known and the manipulations can all be done at the right times. It has become common recently to use laser bar coding to keep track of each of the microtitre plates. Generally a barcode label is attached to each microtitre plate and the robotic automation platform will utilize a stand-alone barcode reader. The robotic arm must grip the microtitre plate with the barcode applied, carry the plate to the proper position, and present the label to the barcode reader station. After the barcode reader has read the barcode, the robotic arm may then carry the microtitre plate to wherever the next step is scheduled to take place. This operation is inefficient in that it requires transport time for the robotic arm movements to and from the barcode reading station.
Thus, despite years of effort, the method of tracking and manipulating sample carriers such as microtitre plates or other items to perform various protocols continues to be slower and more expensive than would be desired.
- SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
The present invention is directed to overcoming, or at least reducing the effects of, one or more of the problems set forth above.
In accordance with an aspect of the present invention, a robotic arm mounted object identification system is provided.
In accordance with another aspect of the present invention, there is provided a barcode reader directly a robotic arm to reduce the time in an automated process. In some aspects the integrated barcode reader includes a robotic arm with the barcode reader mounted thereto to read barcode graphics applied to an object as the robotic arm moves from one location to another.
In one aspect of the present invention the robotic arm comprises a body attached to an automated apparatus and a laser barcode reader attached to the robotic arm. In this embodiment the robotic arm may be adapted to manipulate a microtitre plate or other sample carrier. The robotic arm may include a plurality of end effector grippers to grip the sample carriers. In one embodiment the end effector grippers offset the sample carrier a predetermined distance from the robotic arm such that a surface of the microtitre plate faces the laser barcode reader.
In one embodiment a robotic arm including a body having first and second ends is described. In this embodiment the first end is attached to an automated apparatus and the second end is attached to a microtitre plate holder with a laser barcode reader mounted to the body.
In another embodiment an automated apparatus for manipulating microtitre plates includes a robotic arm mounted to the automated apparatus, a laser barcode reader mounted to the robotic arm, and a microtitre plate holder attached to the robotic arm. In this embodiment a microtitre plate surface with a barcode label affixed thereto is exposed to the laser mounted barcode reader. The microtitre plate holder may be adapted to grip two opposing surfaces of the microtitre plate with a plurality of generally L-shaped end effector grippers. The microtitre plate holder is arranged such that there is a clear line-of-sight between the laser barcode reader and the microtitre plate holder. The clear line-of-sight may be created by positioning the laser barcode reader at a predetermined angle and offsetting the microtitre plate a predetermined distance from the robotic arm with the microtitre plate holder.
In another aspect of the present invention an automated apparatus for manipulating sample carriers only includes mounting a laser barcode reader to a robotic arm. In this aspect the sample carriers may be microtitre plates and the robotic arm may include a body with first and second ends, the first end being attached to the automated apparatus; a microtitre plate holder connected to the second end; and a support mount attached to the body for mounting the laser barcode reader to the robotic arm. The microtitre holder may include a pair of end effector grippers offset from the body by a predetermined clearance dimension, and the laser barcode reader may be mounted to the robotic arm such that a clear line-of-site exists between the laser barcode reader and the microtitre plates.
In another aspect of the invention a method of tracking and/or inventorying sample carriers is described. The method may include the steps of applying a barcode label to the sample carrier and reading the barcode label with a robotic arm-mounted laser barcode reader. The sample carriers in this aspect of the invention may be microtitre plates and the robotic arm may include a body with first and second ends, the first end being attached to an automated apparatus; a sample carrier holder connected to the second end; and a support mount attached to the body for mounting the laser barcode reader to the robotic arm. The method may also include receiving data from the laser barcode reader by a computer for monitoring, tracking, and/or other purposes.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
In another aspect of the present invention an alternative reading device such as a radio frequency detector reads a radio frequency tag on the object in place of the laser barcode reader and barcode label.
The foregoing and other features and aspects of the invention will become further apparent upon reading the following detailed description and upon reference to the drawings in which:
FIG. 1 is a perspective view of one embodiment of a robot mounted barcode reader in accordance with the present.
FIG. 2 is a second perspective view of the embodiment shown in FIG. 1.
FIG. 3 is a side cross-sectional view of the embodiment shown in FIG. 1.
FIG. 4 is a perspective view of a microtitre plate.
FIG. 5 is a third perspective view of the embodiment shown in FIG. 1.
DESCRIPTION OF ILLUSTRATIVE EMBODIMENTS
FIG. 6 is a perspective view of the embodiment shown in FIG. 1 integrated with a processing system.
Illustrative embodiments of the invention are described below. In the interest of clarity, not all features of an actual implementation are described in this specification. It will of course be appreciated that in the development of any such actual embodiment, numerous implementation-specific decisions must be made to achieve the developers' specific goals, such as compliance with system-related and business-related constraints, that will vary from one implementation to another. Moreover, it will be appreciated that such a development effort might be complex and time-consuming, but would nevertheless be a routine undertaking for those of ordinary skill in the art having the benefit of this disclosure.
In one embodiment the invention relates to an apparatus and a method to increase the throughput of manipulating microtitre plates when performing various protocols. The invention increases throughput by eliminating the step of presenting each sample carrier to a separate barcode reading machine between manipulation processes.
FIG. 1 shows one embodiment of a robotic arm 2 in accordance with the present invention. Robotic arm 2 includes a body 3, a first end 4, and a second end 6. First end 4 is adapted to attach to a standard commercially available robot 46 such as the one shown in FIG. 6. Robotics to use with arm 2 may be purchased from Equipe Technologies or other robotics sources. It is within the skilled artisan's ordinary ability with the benefit of this disclosure to adapt robotic arm 2 to any commercially available robotics provider. Second end 6 of robotic arm 2 is attached to a microtitre plate holder, for example, a set of end-effector grippers 8. End effector grippers 8 may be configured in the generally L-shape shown in the figures and are commercially available as shown in the figures. End effector grippers 8 are designed to open and close as programmed by the robotic apparatus to carry and release a sample carrier such as microtitre plate 12. End effector grippers 8 may include rubber pads 10 to facilitate surface contact against sides 26 and 28 of microtitre plate 12.
Referring to FIG. 2, a perspective view opposite the view shown in FIG. 1 is shown. FIG. 2 shows that a laser barcode reader 14 is mounted underneath robotic arm 2 in a recess 16. Barcode reader 14 is small enough to easily fit within recess 16. In one embodiment the dimensions of barcode reader 14 measure no more then three inches by four inches by two inches. Small laser barcode readers that can readily be disposed in recess 16 of robotic arm 2 are commercially available from Microscan or other barcode reader manufacturers. Microscan model MS-310, for example, may be mounted to robotic arm 2 within recess 16. Alternatively, other object identification systems may be used including, but not limited to, CCD barcode readers, 2-D barcode readers, and magstripe readers. The invention is thus not limited to the laser barcode reader disclosed, any identification system known to those of skill in the art with the benefit of this disclosure may be used. In each of the alternative identification systems, the associated tags and graphics to be detected and/or read will be incorporated with the object to be identified. It is within the ordinary skill of one in the art with the benefit of this disclosure to find and purchase such systems and tags.
Laser barcode reader 14 is mounted to robotic arm 2 by support bracket 20. Support bracket 30 is shown in cross-section in FIG. 3 and is arranged to mount laser barcode reader 14 at an angle creating a clear line of site between the laser barcode reader and a side 18 of microtitre plate 12. A laser line projection 20 is shown in FIGS. 1-3 illustrating the clear line of sight that is necessary between the laser barcode reader 14 and surface 18 of microtitre plate 12. In the alternative, barcode reader 14 may not be mounted in a position with a constantly clear line of site to microtitre plate 12. In this alternative, robotic arm 2 may be manipulated to a position other that the position at which it will pick up microtitre plate 12 to create a clear line of site to read the barcode.
Careful mounting of barcode reader 14 to robotic arm 2 may be important for accurate barcode readings. Typically barcode reading lasers will only register barcodes when directed at a barcode label from specific distances and ranges of angles. It is within the ordinary skill of one in the art with the benefit of this disclosure to determine the distance and angle requirements of a barcode reader and mount barcode reader 14 on robotic arm 2 in compliance with the barcode reader's limitations.
For example, according to one embodiment as shown in the figures, the distance and angle between barcode reader 14 and a barcode label 22 (shown in FIG. 5) are ensured to be within the readable limits of the barcode reader by adjusting three components. First, barcode label 22 is positioned properly at point 24 of microtitre plate 12 (shown in FIG. 4). End effector grippers 8 hold microtitre plate 12 by closing on opposing edges 26 and 28. Barcode label 22 must be applied to plate surface 18 facing barcode reader 14. The second component is the microtitre plate 12 position relative to robotic arm 2. As mentioned above, in order for barcode label 22 to be visible to barcode reader 14, a clear line of sight is required. End effector grippers 8 hold microtitre plate 12 by edges 26 and 28 a distance below robotic arm 2 to provide an unobstructed path from the reader to the label. In the embodiment shown in the figures, the L-shape configuration of end effector grippers 8 provides the clearance necessary between a robotic arm 2 and barcode label 22 applied to surface 18. Third, the position of microtitre plate 12 in end effector grippers 8 and the mounting position of barcode reader 14 on robotic arm 2 determines the line-of-sight distance and reading angles required for registering the barcode. Again, it will be understood by one of skill in the art with the benefit of this disclosure that other barcode readers other than laser barcode reader 14 may be used. It will also be understood by one of skill in the art with the benefit of this disclosure that barcodes and other detectable labels and tags may include other than applied label 22, including, but not limited to, ink jet applied directly to the object, thermal transfer printing directly on the object, bar codes molded into the object, and RF tags attached to or molded into the object.
Robotic arm 2 may have a radio frequency (RF) terminal mounted thereto for identifying information about the object being manipulated. RF tags would thus be attached and/or embedded into microtitre plate 12 or other objects to be detected and identified by the RF terminal. Other object identification systems known in that art may also be used in an automated apparatus for objects such as sample carriers.
Referring now to FIG. 6, a automated apparatus incorporating robotic arm 2 is shown for performing various sample analysis protocols. Five stackers 50 are shown, although any number of stackers required for a particular protocol can be used, as may a conveyor in place of the stackers. Further, in many instances, it is desirable to have this entire work area enclosed. All microtitre plates are labeled with a barcode label and computer-cataloged and/or inventoried prior to use. After stacker 50 or the conveyor (not shown) prepares a microtitre plate for presentation, end effector grippers 8 on robotic arm 2 will be directed to that stacker or conveyor and lift the microtitre plate from stacker table 44. At that point, bar code reader 14 (not visible in FIG. 6) immediately reads barcode label 22 (also not shown in FIG. 6) and relays the information contained in the bar code to a computer for tracking and cataloging/inventory purposes. Robotic arm 2 is attached to robot 46 and can carry the microtitre plate to a pipetting station 52 to dispense small amounts of liquid. Robot arm 2 can also carry the microtitre plate to hotel 54. Hotel 54 may be a heating station. For instance, in some sample analyses, it is required to combine reagents in a controlled environment at a particular temperature which is above ambient temperature. In these instances, hotel 54 acts as an oven in which this reaction may occur. Each of these operations can be done with automatic tracking as barcode reader 14 is mounted directly on robotic arm 2 and reads barcode label 22 anytime a microtitre plate is moved by the robot arm.
Hotel 54 may possess light detectors. In this way, if clear microtitre plates are utilized, light may shine one side of the microtitre plate in the hotel. Detectors may reside on the hotel positioned on the other side of the microtitre plate and these detectors determine, for example, the color of the sample in each cavity of the microtitre plates.
Robot arm 2 may carry the microtitre plate to the various resting stations 48, in fact any number of procedures could be performed in this fashion. Advantageously, a barcode reading station which would typically be placed on table 44 to track the microtitre plates as the procedures are performed, is no longer necessary. Significant time savings is achieved as there is no need to pause between procedures to present the microtitre plate to a barcode reading station. There may also be a plate washing cell (not shown) on table 44. Any number of steps in a biological protocol may be performed. Once one particular microtitre plate has had all the steps performed as required by protocol, robotic arm 2 may return the microtitre plate to stacker 50 or conveyor and an operator (not shown) may remove the completed microtitre plates to another area for post-processing as required. The robotic arm mounted barcode reader 14 will have recorded all the tracking information throughout the processing steps without ever slowing down to present each microtitre plate to a barcode reading station.
Robotic arm mounted barcode reader 14 may also be used in any other automated procedure in which reading bar codes and/or identifying and tracking objects is necessary, the invention is not limited to the particular use described above for manipulating sample carriers.
The appended claims are intended to cover all such modifications and variations not limited to the specific embodiments which occur to one of ordinary skill in the art; the claims are not limited to the specific embodiments earlier described.
Although various embodiments have been shown and described, the invention is not so limited and will be understood to include all such modifications and variations as would be apparent to one skilled in the art.