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Advanced robotics meets Synthetic Biology

Advanced robotics meets Synthetic Biology: Evolution of Singer-PIXL, an Automated next-generation Colony Picker “Singer-PIXL went from design to automation within 2 years of collaboration with SynCTI-BioFoundry Singapore and it has found wide acceptance in the synthetic biology community for its high precision and efficiency”

Synthetic biology is the marriage between science and engineering to design and build biological parts and cutting-edge devices to help fuel bio-based economies. This motivation to accelerate innovation in synthetic biology between academia and industry resulted in the establishment of the Singapore Consortium for Synthetic Biology (SINERGY), hosted by the National University of Singapore (NUS). SINERGY helps to bring industry sectors on board and create a globally connected bio-based economy in Singapore. SINERGY is headed by a highly reputed leader in synthetic biology Professor Matthew Chang from the Department of Biochemistry at NUS, who is also the director of the NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Translational Innovation (SynCTI) and WIL@NUS Corporate Laboratory.

A success story that emerged from SINERGY is the collaboration between Singer Instruments, which is a UK-based technology leader in automation and robotic instruments for the life science industry, and the BioFoundry Singapore (hosted by SynCTI, BioFoundry is Singapore’s first and only biofoundry) which houses state-of-the-art robotic systems. The mantra of BioFoundry is based on the concept of Design-Build-Test-Learn to evolve synthetic biological systems on a highly efficient, automated manufacturing platform to enhance high-throughput analysis. This led Singer Instruments and NUS-SynCTI to sign a research collaboration agreement in 2017 to conceive and develop a new advanced and automated high-throughput colony picker.

The amalgamation of industry and academic partners, where Singer Instruments used the motto “Listen, Collaborate and Integrate” with the Synthetic Biology’s concept of “Design-Build-Test-Learn”, led to their next-generation colony picker called Singer-PIXL. Singer’s scientists and engineers worked closely with SynCTI researchers to design and test Singer-PIXL, which evolved to become a high-precision colony picker. This agreement also meant housing Singer-PIXL at the BioFoundry Singapore for proximity to researchers, who could use the instruments and provide constant feedback to design and learning.

Screening of large libraries of microbial strains is a common workflow in synthetic biology. While screening is traditionally performed manually, handpicking thousands of colonies is not only impractical and tedious but also inefficient and costly. Despite the huge advantages of robotic colony picking systems, these platforms have not been widely adopted largely due to issues such as inconsistency, low throughput, and cross-contamination.

Singer-PIXL thus evolved by working through these shortcomings of current colony pickers available in the market. Singer-PIXL excels on 3 major aspects of design and automation.


a) User-friendly software interface: Singer-PIXL uses a touch-screen interface to guide users through the workflow to set up protocols for picking the right colonies in minutes. It is also incredibly simple to operate for end users, typically allowing them to master 90%
of software functionality within 10 mins of introduction. In short, 
hassle-free and easy.

Use of Pinpoint picking technology: This is a meticulously developed technology for reliability and sterility. Compared to existing models of colony pickers that use metal pins that must be sterilized every time and run the risk of cross-contamination, Singer-PIXL uses polymer-based PickupLine that is freshly cut to generate sterile ends as pinheads to transfer microbial colonies. After the colony picking is completed, the “tip” is snipped off and disposed of, hence preventing cross-contamination. Another advantage of the Pinpoint technology is that it can cope with any variation in agar height automatically to ensure that every single colony on the plate is picked and transferred without damaging agar plates. The motors are accurate to 50 microns and the picking profiles are adjustable to optimise for even the most tenacious colonies.

Singer-PIXL went from design to automation within 2 years of collaboration with SynCTI-BioFoundry Singapore. All the above-stated improvements in design and automation are based on the inputs and feedback from researchers at SynCTI. With this new design and capabilities, it has found wide acceptance in the synthetic biology community for its high precision and efficiency, thus expanding its market globally. From a researcher’s point of view, they were instrumental in the development of this new fully automated colony picker through constant learning-feedback which led to improvements in the prototype, and in return, benefited from having huge libraries of strains screened at low cost and less time. 


Conclusion

This collaboration between SynCTI-Singer PIXL has proved to be a good model and provides a blueprint for the development of future advanced robotics. We proudly believe At SynCTI that through initiatives like SINERGY, nurturing corporate-academic partnerships enhances the crosstalk between researchers and engineers, resulting in the development of cutting-edge technologies for automation and robotic screening platforms. Within SINERGY, a bevy of synergistic public-private partnerships between academia and industry is currently in the works, and we look forward to the sharing of other success stories in the very near future.

ROADWATER FIRM WIN SOMERSET EMPLOYER OF THE YEAR

We are overjoyed to be announced as ‘Employer of the Year’ at the Somerset Business Awards. At Singer Instruments we develop world-class robots for biotechnology. Our products accelerate science in laboratories in over 50 countries, for customers like NASA, Cancer Research UK, and the top 50 universities in the World.

The Employer of the Year award is recognition of 4 years of hard work, specifically aimed at improving staff inclusivity, satisfaction, and retention:
‘Profit Share for Nerds’ is a Company bonus scheme, launched in 2016. 50% of profits above target are divided among all employees. This year, our staff are due to receive bonuses at 13% of their annual salary.


We launched ‘Equity for Nerds’ in 2018. As a recognised Government SIP scheme, this optional employee share options scheme gives employees a tax-efficient way to receive bonuses and make an investment that is currently growing at about 25%. Year one saw a 50% adoption rate, and half of Singer Instruments employees are now business owners!


Other notable initiatives include a program to increase salaries towards being nationally competitive;  a transparent pay banding structure for fairness and to augment understanding of career progression; a program to increase holiday allowance by an extra day per year for the next 5 years.


Since the implementation of these initiatives, we have noted a marked improvement in staff retention from 75% to 91%.


We now perform above Health & Safety Executive (HSE) targets in all categories: Demands; Control; Managers’ Support, Peer Support, Relationships, Role, and Change. The HSE has recently showcased Singer as a case study in recognising and dealing with the prevention of workplace stress and related issues.


Our MD Harry Singer, 3rd Generation family-owner of Singer Instruments says: “Recruiting high-quality engineers, software developers, and biologists is difficult, especially when you’re based in a tiny little village like Roadwater. Over the years we’ve had to work extra hard to make Singer Instruments attractive enough to lure engineers from the likes of Red Bull Racing and managers away from BMW and Facebook. It’s really nice to get recognised as a great place to work, thanks very much to the Chamber of Commerce and Somerset Business Awards!”


At Singer, we believe in a healthy work-life balance, with staff encouraged to limit working hours from 9 to 5. The atmosphere is relaxed, attitudes are positive, and nobody wears a suit. We firmly believe that a strong focus on transparency, clear growth pathways, an inclusive strategy, and a shared rewards structure makes for a dynamic, buzzing atmosphere with engaged, happy teams who really look forward to coming into work on a Monday morning. Most of the time!

Fancy working at Singer Instruments?

If Singer seems like the right place for you or you are a keen intern looking for some experience, then please get in touch. We are always on the lookout for top talent.

Click here to see what positions are currently available.

Singer Instruments Responds to the Climate Emergency

Singer Instruments Responds to the Climate Emergency
 

Inspired by, and in response to recent movements to stimulate action, Singer Instruments have updated our Environmental Strategy. This is not a PR stunt to promote Singer Instruments, rather PR efforts to promote environmental and ecological action and to inspire other businesses to do the same.

 

Accelerating Scientific Breakthroughs

Many of Singer Instruments’ customers are working on renewable technologies to replace crude oil dependency, so the biggest impact we can make is to continue to produce robotics to help accelerate scientific breakthroughs.
 

Contributing to Scientific Breakthroughs

Singer Instruments are partnering with Dr Alessia Buscaino at the University of Kent to develop Scheffersomyces stipitis strains to convert agriculture and forestry waste into bioethanol.
 

Engineering for Longevity

As a byproduct of engineering our products for reliability and longevity, Singer Instruments have a very small (but unquantified) landfill footprint. There are MSM 100s, made 30-something years ago, still in the field, and still working!
 

Overseas Offices

Travel to/from our largest markets (Asia / China / North America) has been massively reduced thanks to our satellite offices.
 

Shipping Demo Fleet

The distances that we ship our demo fleet of instrumentation has reduced now that we have multiple demo fleets stationed in our overseas offices.
 

100% renewable electricity

Since 1st October 2019 Singer have chosen to use a 100% renewable electricity supplier, Octopus Energy.
 

Remote support

Where possible, SI products are supported remotely by internet connection, reducing the carbon footprint of support.
 

Online demonstrations

Online demonstrations have reduced the carbon footprint of live product demonstrations to customers, without massively affecting the conversion rates.
 

LED lighting upgrade

(Summer 2019) We are upgrading the factory lighting from fluorescent to LED; 58% more energy efficient and longer lifetimes.
 

Lobby our local MP

(14/10/2019) Harry sent an email to Ian Liddle-Grainger to appeal to him to support the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill.
 

Education and horizon-broadening for youngsters

Engage with students and local schools to inspire young minds in a scientific direction that could help make a difference.
 
Singer engage with students and local schools to inspire young minds in a scientific direction that could help make a difference.
 

Aluminium

SI chose to use aluminium as our most common metal of choice. One resource for environmental pros and cons of aluminium can be found here.
 

Promote environmental and ecological awareness and PR to protect the future of the planet

Put a banner on the website and local PR to promote environmental understanding
 

Energy

When the new extension was built in 2013, a heat exchange unit was fitted to the air intake. This, in theory, reduces the energy consumption of heating the building in the winter. The new building is also very well insulated. Other than this, I’m not sure that SI have much claim to energy efficiency. Please turn the lights off!
 

Air Travel

When we do need to fly, our preferred airport is Bristol; they are actively reducing their CO2 emissions and are committed to being carbon neutral by 2015. Our airline of choice is KLM, ranked the Most Sustainable Airline by the Dow Jones Sustainability Index.
 
 

Where Singer have room for improvement:
 

  1. Reduce the requirement for product installation: if customers could install themselves, this would remove travel requirements of an installation engineer
  2. Further increase global coverage of employees to reduce travel requirements
  3. Blogs to feature / promote customers who make environmental impacts
  4. Blog to promote initiatives that other SMEs can employ to reduce carbon footprint
  5. Promotion of this blog to other SMEs
  6. Considerations for 360 product lifecycle
  7. Recycling / reduce waste
  8. Reduce the use of consumables used in our products
  9. Reduce the carbon emissions through commuting
  10. Reduce our shipping footprint by seeking rail or sea transport instead of air
  11. Consider the impact of air conditioning throughout HQ
  12. Hold an event to plant a load of trees in the sheep field!?
  13. Promote our environmental strategy on our website to inspire other business to take action

 
 

Singer Instruments would be very happy to receive advice or ideas for further improvements through the contact form below. Thanks for reading.
 

PhD PIPS Lab Automation Placement

Singer Instruments internship

Suzy Hocking
PIPS Student
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

 

“I had a fantastic three months and made lots of friends – I was very sad to leave!”

 

When I first applied for my PhD, the PIPs internship was a great talking point in the interview, but in reality, wasn’t something I was that thrilled about. As I entered my second year, and pressure to get my PIPs sorted increased, I had a half-hearted look around – fully expecting to find some run-of-the-mill internship, where I would be wearing a suit, making coffee, and staring at a computer screen all day.

 
The internship at Singer Instruments was advertised by our careers advisor. I read the job posting, researched the company a bit and, even though robotics had never really been an interest of mine, decided to bite the bullet and apply. What really set Singers apart, even this early in the application process, was the clear emphasis on community at the company and it seemed from the website that it was a pretty fun and interesting place to work.
 
I was interviewed, and soon after offered the place!
 
It was a bit of a lifestyle change for me – from the smoggy, concrete jungle of London to the green fields of Somerset; where buses after 6pm are a myth, cider with dinner is (mostly) compulsory, and there are probably more cows than people.
 
I got in on my first day to find that everything had been set up for me and spent day one learning, and quickly forgetting, everyone’s names. I settled in quickly, and was soon given various projects to work on.
 
From day one I was treated as an important member of the team – not necessarily how an intern expects to feel. My day was split between the office, doing market research for new product development; the lab – where I was working on the scientific testing of Singers’ latest product – the PIXL; and R&D – hanging around with the engineers and software developers – usually so they could fix something for me, but often being helpful as well! The people that I worked with were wonderful, and I was never left to muddle through something on my own, they were all too happy to help!
 
It was easy to see how the work I did on my PIPs benefited the company, and the skills I’ve taken away will be invaluable (it was also a very nice 3-month break from the daily grind of PhD life!). Singer Instruments was worlds away from the academic environment of my PhD and I loved being able to learn about so many new things and I have a newfound appreciation for just how many specialists it takes to develop, build, and launch a product.
 
On top of the work, there was lots of cake and cups of tea, sushi, pub visits (complete with some questionable cider), and one very enjoyable christmas party. I had a fantastic three months and made lots of friends – I was very sad to leave!

I first met the guys from Singer at a conference. I’ve always had a keen interest in robotics as a hobbyist, not to mention red decals and profanity. From the off, I knew that they were different, I distinctly remember Hawaiian shirts and offering out shots of vodka in SBS format dishes. Having struggled for a while to think of somewhere to do an internship, 3 months that were a requirement for my Ph.D., suddenly it clicked. I fired off an email, confessing my love for robots, somewhat naive, yet I was surprised to get an email back within the hour.

 
By the time the week was out, I’d had an interview and was all set. After a Christmas break, me and my ramshackle Peugeot 206 trekked down to Somerset from my home in the Midlands (a place only known to northerners… in the south it’s simply called ‘the north’). Having a high tech engineering facility, nestled in the sleepy village of Roadwater was one of the greatest juxtapositions I had ever seen! I love small towns and villages, so having the chance to work in one, while still being at the state of the art was really exciting.
 
The joy of working with an SME like Singer, is you really have to fill any role required, and you gain an enormous amount of experience. The company really values the opinion of each of its members, and it was amazing to see that as an intern I was contributing to real change within the company. For the most part, I spent my time working as an interface between the R&D team and the Sales team.
 
On the R&D side this included prepping samples for testing the ROTOR HDA, as well as the PhenoBooth that was undergoing the last stages of testing. During my work in the lab I had gained a keen eye for detail, but you really get a different approach working in a team. You learn not only to see what’s going wrong and why, but also how to communicate this in a cross-disciplinary manner, allowing recreation and adequate troubleshooting. The Singer team is second to none, and while everyone is working flat out to do the best job they can, they are all friendly and engaging.
 
Like all good places to spend time, work wasn’t everything. I spent a lot of time exploring the local area, being on the doorstep of the Exmoor National Park. I met new friends in new pubs, trained with a baseball team, and discovered a love of farmhouse cider!
 
The lure of Singer Instruments was too much to resist. Upon completion of my Ph.D. I was given the opportunity to return, managing the in-house scientific research, and UK sales portfolio. Jumping at the chance, I now live and work in Somerset! What was a diverse and rewarding internship, has become an ideal beggining to my career. I have found a role where my specialist learning makes a direct impact on the UK bioeconomy, at the end of each day seeing the changes that I’ve made and influenced, and… I spend most of my days playing with robots.
 
Interested in doing your PIPS Placement with Singer Instruments?


Singer Instruments internship

Ollie Severn
PIPS Student
University of Nottingham

 

“By the end of the internship, I was surprised by how many skills I had gained.”

 

Grow Your Own GFP Xmas Tree

Is it Christmas yet? The Singer lab has certainly been getting into the festive spirit. The flasks are full of sherry and the turkey’s in the incubator! All that’s left to sort out is the Christmas tree. But, if like us, you’re sick of untangling the tree lights and cleaning up the constant shower of pine needles, we have the ultimate solution: grow a GFP Christmas tree!
 


 


To create your own GFP Christmas tree you will need:

 

Ready? Let Christmas commence!

 
1. Load the Stinger file into the ROTOR.
 
2. Follow the on-screen instructions for loading your 384-density, GFP source plate and the target plate, then hit go!
 
3. Drink some sherry and be merry while the Stinger does its thing.
 
4. Use the PhenoBooth to watch the GFP tree glow and come to life.
 

Download our Stinger template file and get pinning!
We’d love to see how yours turn out. Share your fluorescent colonies on our Facebook / Twitter pages using the hashtag: #gfpxmas
 

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good science.


ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Singer Instruments completing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge all for a great cause.

Text “ICED55” plus an amount (such as £5) to 70070 to donate to the Motor Neurone Disease Association

Our nominations: Haynes Lab, Boone Lab, Cai Lab & Roadwater Post Office & Stores