A Brief History of the Automatic Methods Group

The early days

As with most currently existing Groups, the origins of the Automatic Methods Group are in the old Society for Analytical Chemistry. It was during a meeting of the Group Liaison and Policy Committee in March 1965 that W H C (Bill) Shaw – then Chief Analyst at Glaxo Laboratories, Greenford – formally proposed that a new group should be formed to focus on the rapidly growing area of automatic analysis. After consultation with a number of interested parties a GLPC meeting in May agreed to put the proposal forward for approval by SAC Council. This was given at a meeting on June 15th 1965. It might surprise some to note that, on occasions, some things tended to happen more quickly in those days.

An Inaugural Meeting on “Automatic Analysis” was organised by the SAC and held at the Welcome Foundation Building on 10th November 1965. A newly appointed committee met shortly after, on the 18th November 1965, and set in motion plans for two more meetings which were titled “Economics of Automatic Analysis” and “Sample Handling Techniques” – it is interesting to observe that, after the passage of thirty years, both of these themes are still firm favourites with Group members.

The inaugural committee was composed of:

Chairman: Dr G V R Mattock Effluent Control Ltd
Secretary: Mr W H C Shaw Glaxo Laboratories Ltd., Greenford
Members: Mr P Adams Laporte Chemicals Ltd., Luton
Mr D W Hill Royal College of Surgeons, Lincolns Inn Fields, London
Mr C P M Rose Courtauld Institute of Biochemistry, London
Mr R Sawyer Laboratory of the Government Chemist, London
Mr D C M Squirrell ICI Plastics Division, Welwyn Garden City
Mr H E Stagg ICI Dyestuffs Division, Manchester.

 

Initial Aims and Objectives

  1. The Terms of Reference of the new group envisaged a broad interpretation of the term “automation”. Coverage would range from simple mechanisation (e.g automatic dispensers) through to full automation where an automatic analytical or detection system could be arranged to provide feed-back of information to control a manufacturing process, possibly with computer treatment.
  2. The widespread potential for applying automation to the full spectrum of analytical procedures prompted the Group, as a matter of policy, to recognise the need to hold meetings jointly with other organisations, in particular the other subject groups of the SAC.
  3. Emphasis would be given to papers describing the development and application of automatic analytical equipment that had been developed, in members’ laboratories, to solve particular analytical problems. Meetings of the Group would also provide a channel for a discussion of commercial apparatus of a semi- or fully automatic nature that was then becoming available in growing volume. Automatic control associated with automatic analysis was an important feature of the Group’s remit initially, and has remained so until this day.
  4. The Group was charged to encourage analysts to devise their own automatic equipment by giving preference to papers that presented and explored new concepts over those that were largely applicational in nature or which adapted commercially available equipment. It was also encouraged to promote the study of such fundamentals as reaction kinetics and instrument design as a sound basis for the subsequent development of automatic analytical equipment.

Progress

The intervening thirty years have seen substantial progress in analytical instrumentation. The development of increasingly powerful computers has been a major factor. The original terms of reference of the Group touched on the use of computers but this would, at that time, mainly have been off-line processing on a company’s main-frame computer. The formation of the Group in 1965 coincided with the production by DEC of their PDP 8 – the first mass-produced general purpose mini-computer. The microcomputer had not yet been invented. It was not until 1971 that Intel produced the first microprocessor, a 4-bit device called the 4004. Two years later they produced the 8008, the forerunner of a range of microprocessors that eventually led to the development of the microcomputer in the 1980s.

At a members’ Demonstration Meeting held at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School in 1969 twenty-two items of equipment of varying degrees of complexity were demonstrated. The larger, or more complex, items were brought in and assembled on the previous day, and disassembled and removed on the succeeding day. This was a very successful event with about 200 people attending during the day, a reflection of the leading role that the UK played in automation at that time. A similar meeting at the same venue in the following year brought in about 150 people to view 17 demonstrations. Plans to hold a further meeting in 1975 had to be abandoned when it became clear that there would not be sufficient equipment to form a viable meeting.

The decrease in material for a demonstration meeting was a reflection of the significant changes in the nature of laboratory automation that had taken place during the first ten years of the Group’s existence. Some of the ideas that had been demonstrated had been taken up by companies such as Technicon who were themselves busily engaged in developing improved and more versatile instruments. Changes in laboratory practice were reflected in the type of meeting that the Group organised.

The AGM in 1970 was the first occasion on which a meeting that linked automation with environmental pollution was held. Twenty five years later this is still one of our most popular themes.

In 1979 the Group organised, on behalf of the Analytical Division, a successful Summer School in Automatic Analysis, at Swansea. The School laid considerable emphasis on the practical side of automation combining, in a seamless fashion, lectures, tutorial sessions and practical work in the laboratory.

Laboratory robotics was another area where the Group was quick to recognise a trend, organising meetings and workshops to demonstrate the potential (and limitations) of the new technology.

As the 1980s came along, the development of smaller, more powerful and cheaper mini-computers, and the introduction of microcomputers, brought about a gradual, but fundamental, change in laboratory automation. The control of automatic analysers became simpler and more flexible as electro-mechanical control devices such as cam-timers and process-timers were replaced by microprocessors and eventually microcomputers. Analysers became more versatile as soon as it was realised that a flexible control programme could be achieved by changing a few variables in a microcomputer program. Data-handling remained the province of mini-computers until microcomputers became sufficiently powerful, but it was not long before people realised that computers could do a lot more than control instruments and make simple calculations on analytical data. The Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) was born.

A typical LIMS computer system aids both the analyst and the laboratory manager as it tracks samples and adds statistical QC/QA routines and data-edit, display and storage facilities to the basic capability of the analysers. It documents and summarises resource utilisation within the laboratory, as a spin-off from the basic process of recording request details on the database. A LIMS system can bridge the gap between the analysers and the company’s financial and administrative mainframes.

In the early 1980s the situation in laboratory computing was similar to the situation in “hard” automation some twenty years earlier when the Group was formed. Enthusiasts in laboratories were starting to use computers for data handling, and instrument companies were also beginning to take an interest. It soon became clear that there was a lot of re-invention of the wheel going on, as analytical chemists attempted piecemeal implementation of their own, or purchased some of the pioneering LIMS systems, with variable degrees of success. A group of American LIMS enthusiasts decided that the time was ripe for a conference at which chemists and managers could get together to explore the role and implementation of LIMS, and, in the company of experts in the LIMS field, share common experiences and plan the way forward. The first two International LIMS conferences, held in Pittsburgh in 1987 and ’88, were major successes, and were soon followed by the first European conference in 1989.

The Automatic Methods Group played a major role in organising this conference, setting up a sub-committee comprising a permanent nucleus from the AMG committee but with a majority drawn from users and industry professionals. The 3rd International LIMS Conference, held at Windsor in 1989, was an instant hit with analytical chemists across Europe, and since then the conference has alternated annually between America and Europe, with close cooperation between the US and European organising committees.

As the European conference expanded in size and status, it became clear that it had outgrown its original venue and in 1995 it moved for the first time to Bonn on the European mainland. The 1lth Conference, was held in June, l997, at another new European mainland venue – the Netherlands Congress Centre in the Hague – in association with the l0th Anniversary of the founding of the Division of Computational Chemistry of the Royal Netherlands Chemical Society. The conference’s role as a unifying force for LIMS theory and practice across Europe also has the support of the EC Standards, Measurement and Testing programme.

A Financial Perspective

In the early years the Group operated on a shoestring but by the late 1970s Group funds had started to increase following a succession of financially successful meetings. In particular, in October 1985 the first of a series of what became known as “Dormy Meetings” was held at the Dormy Hotel, Ferndown. A surplus in the region of £13,000 meant that the Group could now afford to be more ambitious in the planning of meetings. A consequence of this, however, was a major increase in the workload on the Honorary Treasurer. While computerised accounting packages can reduce some of the drudgery, the liability to pay VAT that followed from the increase in turnover introduced a whole new level of complexity to the Treasurer’s task. The appointment of an Assistant Secretary/Treasurer has helped to reduce the burden as has the use of paid secretarial assistance to handle meeting registrations and other routine activities.

The Committee

When the Group was launched, most employers were supportive of staff who undertook committee membership. Public sector employers saw it as their duty to promote and support this type of activity. Nowadays, people working in the private sector cannot afford the time, and scientists in the public sector are considered an endangered species. This situation is reflected in the preponderence of older, semi-retired, or retired people now serving on the committee. This has had a major impact on the cost of running the committee, a cost which has to be recouped through the registration fees charged for the meetings that we organise. In spite of this problem we have not restricted our committee membership in any way, continuing to draw our members from throughout the United Kingdom. The Committee does its best to encourage younger people to join its ranks, but it is an uphill struggle.

Personalities

When it was first suggested that the Group should be launched over 50 people wrote to express a firm interest in joining the new group. Among their number were the Government Chemist of the day, several people who subsequently became Presidents of the Analytical Division, including the present incumbent, and the Editor of this book.

Doug Squirrell, a founding committee member, was elected as an Honorary Life Member of the Group in 1990. Jim Page, another founder member, was an auditor for the first set of accounts, and he has held the post ever since.

All Group secretaries will be eternally grateful to Pam Hutchinson whose firm, patient control kept many an Honorary Secretary from straying too far from the official path.

The Group is grateful to a number of companies for their interest and support over the years. Particular mention must be made of ICI, Glaxo and LGC.

The Future

The Dormy meetings, when we began them, were trend-setting insofar as we aimed them specifically at senior management. Times have moved on, and meetings of this nature are no longer popular. We are tending to focus increasingly on “serial” meetings which people can attend on a regular basis in order to keep on top of changes in a particular field of automated analysis. We are also placing increased emphasis on “workshop” meetings which allow attendees to participate more fully in an interchange of ideas and discussion.

The future will also see an increase in the sponsorship of meetings by industry, particularly instrument companies. Our preliminary moves in this direction have proved to be less troublesome than anticipated and we have certainly not experienced any problems in preserving our independence or integrity in such circumstances.

D G Porter
16 June 1997

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