Robots Make Research More Efficient

Syngenta uses robotics to speed up time-consuming tests, aiding in the development of new products.
Robots Make Research More Efficient
As a formulations chemist for Syngenta, King Nelson recently helped develop a new herbicide. For Nelson, the next step in that process is to run a series of tests to determine its compatibility with other formulations, which requires him to put together a list of all the products a grower might use with it in a tank mix.

“It’s not just other formulations,” Nelson says. “You have to consider surfactants, fertilizers and additives like crop oil, hard water and soft water. And then there are Syngenta products; there are competitors’ products; there are generic products. When you start thinking about all the possible combinations, you’re looking at more than 1,000 of them. It’s daunting.”

Robotics are being utilized by @Syngenta to speed up time-consuming tests.

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Even if Nelson and his team worked 24 hours a day, it would take months for them to determine whether their new herbicide formulation is field ready. “And that is if we had the stamina to do the same test over and over and over again,” he adds.

For the last 10 years, Greensboro, North Carolina-based Nelson has depended on a secret weapon, housed in the Syngenta Jealott’s Hill, England, research facility, that makes those tests possible. Named after the Greek goddess of hunting, ARTEMIS, also an acronym for Automated Robot to Evaluate Millions of Interesting Solutions, is a robot that can run 1,500 experiments in a week. Not only do those experiments arm Nelson with the information he needs to answer growers’ questions on tank-mix compatibility, but they also give Syngenta a leg up when it comes to bringing leading-edge technologies to market.

Getting It Right, Every Time

From his Jealott’s Hill lab, Ian Tovey, formulation automation team leader at Syngenta, manages all of the experiments conducted on ARTEMIS. Tovey explains ARTEMIS’ name: “It’s challenging to find the perfect composition for components that hold together physically and chemically during manufacturing. ARTEMIS helps us hunt down these optimum areas.”

Tovey says that his job is to take the active ingredients that chemists have discovered and use them to create products farmers find useful. “ARTEMIS allows us to generate liquid-based formulations,” he says. “Anything that comes from a can, we can reproduce.”

In addition to tank mixing, ARTEMIS is able to create formulations and screen surfactants. “So, for example, if we have a recipe for a formulation but we want one of the components to change or the amount to vary—or both—the robot can do that for us,” Tovey says.

In 2018, Syngenta acquired a second robot, ARES, an acronym for Automated Robot Evaluating Solubility and the name of the Greek god of war. It tests the solubility of active ingredients and products—giving valuable insights that speed new-product development timelines. A third robot to help test tank-mix compatibility is on the way.

Before ARTEMIS, Nelson says Syngenta devoted a lot of manpower to finding detailed information about new surfactant technologies. “The company can now devote that time and those resources elsewhere,” he says. “The great thing about the robot is that it doesn’t care; it can do the same thing over and over again and is fine with the repetition. I guarantee you that after the fifth day of a human doing the same thing over and over, his or her mind will start to turn to mush, resulting in human error.”

“[The robot is] just another tool in our toolbox to give us extra data. Ultimately, the process of developing a formulation is very much a human-driven project.”

Ian Tovey
That’s not to say robots will replace the need for humans in labs, Tovey insists. “It’s just another tool in our toolbox to give us extra data,” he says. “Ultimately, the process of developing a formulation is very much a human-driven project. People take the lead when it comes to using what comes out of an ARTEMIS experiment and turning it into a viable product.”

On the Leading Edge

When Syngenta invested in ARTEMIS 10 years ago, the company seized an opportunity that continues to pay off today, despite rapidly developing technologies and daily advancements in automation.

As Syngenta continues to build its automation capability, questions about future requirements are only natural. “This is an area that’s moving quickly,” Tovey says. “It’s difficult to know with any certainty that what you build today is foolproof for the next five to 10 years.”

But Syngenta researchers have learned that it doesn’t pay to fixate too much on planning ahead. Instead, you should plan for the needs of today.

“What you need to ensure is that it does what you need it to do—and that it does it well,” Tovey says. “Hammers have been around for thousands of years, but everybody still owns one because it’s the right tool for the job.”

The same goes for automation: “If you build your automation so that it works for you—and so that it’s flexible—it doesn’t matter if somebody else has a better version. As long as you have something you know you are happy with and it does the job you need it to do, it can live a good, long life.”

Ultimately, Nelson measures success by the data he’s able to share with growers. “When questions come up in the field and I get a call from a technical rep, I can say that we’ve looked at something close to that situation in the lab, and I can make a recommendation,” he says. “And if I don’t have the answer, I can set up an experiment to find out. We’re trying to give the best information to people who depend on it to grow better crops. That’s what this is all about.”