Germany's Industrie 4.0 brings automation to medical biotech

An innovative project called "StemCellFactory" that could revolutionize medical biotechnology and other industries is due to be showcased at the Hannover Messe trade show in April. StemCellFactory brings together automation and life sciences – two seemingly unrelated fields in a fully automated production line that multiplies induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS- cells). The project is part of an initiative of Germany's federal government, Industry 4.0. Known in German as Industrie 4.0, the program is part of Germany's High-Tech Strategy 2020 and is to establish the country as a leading market for and supplier of advanced manufacturing solutions.

Petri dish on colour scale; Source: Photography
© Photography

StemCellFactory is a consortium project that embodies what Industry 4.0 – some call it a "fourth industrial revolution" – is all about. The cultivation of living cells involves continual gathering of data. This innovation is using that data to control highly automated production sequences in a complex manufacturing environment. Yet achieving this the digitization and networking of biotechnological production facilities has been an enormous challenge.

Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology (IPT) in Aachen were up to the job. Working together with colleagues at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Molecular Biomedicine in Münster, university hospitals in Bonn and Aachen, the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule (RWTH) in Aachen and two partner companies, Life & Brain GmbH and HiTec Zang GmbH, they first developed an automated, standardized, parallelized production facility for all necessary steps in culturing cells. They then went on to implement methods such as genome editing into the fully automated quality-controlled workflow. One of the main aspects of the system is networked control of production must be able to adapt to the process of cell culturing in real time.

Consistent cell quality is vital to pharmaceuticals development based on iPS cells. To ensure this, scientists at the IPT networked a robotic pipetting machine, a specially designed microscope, an incubator and an automatic storage device. Developer Michael Kulik of the IPT said, "Despite all the efforts of industry to establish a uniform interface for laboratory automation devices, until now, there has been no international standard for networking them. Plug and play isn't possible. That's why we first had to develop our own standard in order to integrate everything."

The innovations spawned by this project also have applications in other manufacturing sectors, including the fully automated production of cogs, screws and motors. StemCellFactory's software is scalable, and can be transferred to the control technology of any other type of production system in which adaptive control is carried out on the basis of real-time measurements. The StemCellFactory   can be seen working live at the Hannover Messe from April 25 to April 29.