VIDEO: Meet Ms Ugene, the state-of-the-art Singapore robot testing TCM and food products

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No errors, no mood swings, no sick leave, and she can process three sets of microbiological tests in 14 minutes. Meet Ms Ugene, Singapore’s first two-armed robot microbiologist helping Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), food and nutrition firms ensure the quality of their products.

Developed in 2015, Ms Ugene was the brainchild of Eunice Ng, a microbiologist and the technical director of Ugene Laboratory Services, a facility specialising in microbiological testing of food and TCM products.

Ms Ugene helps ensure the purity and accuracy of ingredients listed in the TCM products, says the company. There have previously been cases of TCM herbal products not containing their listed ingredients, or being contaminated with other drugs, toxins or heavy metals.

For food manufacturers and food establishments, the robot can test for contaminants, whether chemical, viral, bacterial or microbiological.

In our lab, we look for different types of bacteria, test if the food is fit for human consumption, and do shelf life testing for food or TCM products. We also conduct food hygiene auditing for our clients in Singapore to improve their hygiene level,” Ng said.

“One robot can replace three human beings and the third human who needs to control the robot would need to spend only 60% of his or her time in the lab.”

Productivity boost

The time saved enables the staff to work on other high-calibre lab tasks, says the firm.

Ms Ugene was bought after the company received funding from Spring Singapore – an agency under the Ministry of Trade and Industry responsible for helping local enterprises grow.

Ng and her team headed to Japan to find a robotic engineer who could help them create their dream lab staff.

Developing a robot to handle microbiology lab work required Ng to work closely with the engineers at Heads Corporation in developing the programmes that would run the robot.

The robot needed to be able to perform lab tests accurately, and in precise movements. Even when placing a cap on an agar dish, the movements have to be exact, Ng explained.

It is now able to conduct lab tests such as most probable number (MPN), spread plate and pour plate methods.

It can process three sets of microbiological testing in 14 minutes – faster than humans while not compromising accuracy of the results.

The improved productivity also meant happier clients, especially those from food and beverage establishments facing food poisoning cases, which benefitted from the faster turn-around of lab results.

“This is the future of microbiology. The robot doing all the indicative tests,” Ng concluded.

Video courtesy of Ugene Laboratory Services.

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