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Technology Column: Water Testing Lab Automates its Way to Efficiency

by Simon in ‘t Veld, Vitens | Feb 27, 2015
How do you merge three regional water supply testing laboratories into one without losing efficiency and increasing errors? Build a state-of-the-art lab using the latest microbiology and chemical tests combined with automation and robotics, that’s how.

How do you merge three regional water supply testing laboratories into one without losing efficiency and increasing errors? Build a state-of-the-art lab using the latest microbiology and chemical tests combined with automation and robotics, that’s how.

Vitens is the largest drinking water supply company in the Netherlands. It was founded in 2002 after a merger of three drinking water companies. At the time of the merger, the three companies each had their own regional water laboratory. Due to the merger, a new laboratory was built to replace the three regional laboratories. In the original laboratories, samples could be analyzed at the end of the afternoon due to the short distance between the sampling points and the laboratories. In the new laboratory, it was not possible to analyze the samples that early. Although sample collectors still take samples in the three regions, the samples have to be transported over a longer distance to the laboratory. At present, samples arrive at the laboratory around 8 p.m.

For this and other reasons, senior management set up the laboratory to rely on a high level of automation. In particular, the company wanted to avoid the expense of analysts working long evening shifts as well as to minimize the effect of the samples’ late arrival in relation to the test results that became available. Solutions were provided by KIESTRA Lab Automation and Labman Automation. Analyses can be characterized as semiautomatic. Transport and handling of sample bottles and petri dishes in the laboratory is based on barcode reading. Microbiologists carry out a mix of classic and modern techniques in the microbiology laboratory. Standard culture methods for the detection of fecal contamination and other general water analyses are performed. Confirmation of suspicious colonies after culture is done with modern techniques like MALDITOF and real-time PCR. In the chemical laboratory, robots supplied by Labman Automation transfer water from bottle to tubes. Many inorganic analyses are also carried out completely automatically. Therefore, sample bottles are transported to a unit containing several analyzers (sample bottles are identical, the only difference is the conservation reagents, depending on the analyses that are carried out from the bottle, and the sterility of the bottles used for microbiological analyses). With the help of robot arms, subsamples are transferred to the analyzers. Total investment for the new laboratory was 12 million euros and the return on this investment was seven years.

The company also sought to minimize errors. The handling of about 2000 bottles in an evening containing approximately 330 mL of water (easily between 650 and 700 liters total) within a short time can easily lead to mistakes. Based on the information on the barcode, petri dishes with culture media are labelled automatically. Here, the unique barcode of the sample bottle is scanned. Then with the help of this barcode, the LIMS system sends a command to a label unit to print the right set of petri dishes.

Transportation of the petri dishes into the incubator is also done automatically. In this way, the right set of analyses is always evaluated. Also, the system avoids the problem of technicians putting petri dishes into the wrong incubator. Registration of the incubation period is done automatically. When the required incubation time is finished, the petri dishes are automatically transported out of the incubator to the analyst where the counting and screening is done.

To ensure that test results meet the required quality level, all analyses were validated before opening the automated laboratory. In this ISO 17025 accredited laboratory, validation was carried out in accordance to the guidelines of a national document issued by the Dutch Accreditation Council. The performance of the analyses was also checked by participation in ring trials for microbiological and chemical analyses.

In addition to the high level of automation, Vitens is also considering the possibilities of automating the remaining manual activities in the laboratory. In the near future, the company will work on developing a robot to automatically filter a sample and transfer the filter to a petri dish with culture media. In this way, the company automates the line between the transport of sample bottles and the counting and screening of the incubated petri dishes.

Besides the automation of classical microbiological methods, there is a change from the more classical microbiology to molecular-based analyses and online sensoring. When these new analyses are ready to be accepted, automation in the microbiological laboratory will strongly increase. Online sensoring on location will result in the availability of real-time data. This will make it possible to carry out analyses automatically in the field and no longer in the laboratory. At the moment, Vitens receives test results after the water has already been consumed. Online sensoring will allow rapid testing of water prior to consumption by the public. Examples of this kind of automated testing include Coliguard® (E.coli and coliform bacteria) and Bactiquant (quantification total bacteria) tests. Automation such as this will help to ensure public safety in addition to increasing operational efficiency.

To view a video of Vitens’ automated process, visit

[Editor’s Note: Tricia Vail, a member of the PDA Letter Editorial Committee, toured Vitens’ automated laboratory in 2014. Other industries offer “lessons learned” that pharma can explore. Expect more articles about practices in other industries in future editions of the PDA Letter.]

About the Author

Simon in ‘t Veld is the manager of the Department of Microbiology within the drinking water company Vitens. He has been working for more than 28 years in the field of drinking water microbiology.