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Robots test water at North West

VISITORS to North West Water's new water-testing laboratory can be forgiven for thinking they wandered into an industrial workshop by mistake. Instead of lab benches and Bunsen burners, it has plastic conveyor belts and the kind of one-armed robots seen in automobile plants. The privatised regional water company does not even call its facility at Lingley Mere in Warrington, Cheshire, a laboratory. It is an analytical factory.

Water companies have to test rivers and other sources regularly to ensure there is no contamination. Some 2,000 samples are taken by North West daily, leading to 6,800 tests. The process used to be labour-intensive but, as the Orwellian title emphasises, automatons are now at the heart of the process. People will still be employed in the lab, but 85 per cent of the work will be done automatically by 22 robots controlled by a single mainframe computer.

To ensure that samples are not mixed up, the flow of bottles and data will be strictly controlled by the computer when the lab goes into full operation in July. "It will be like a production line," said Geoff Springings, the project manager for the lab. "The robots are taking over what the scientists used to do."

The robots come in two types, one designed to lift and move objects from one place to another, the other able to do complex actions such as adding reagents to a sample, stirring it, or placing it in an analytical instrument. The only bit of routine work that has not been automated is filling the bottles.

The computer that runs the robots and monitors the flow of samples and information will notify its human supervisors if it spots contamination, but it can also act on its own. It can fire off faxes ordering staff in outlying stations to shut down the flow, add purifying chemicals or take other actions to solve any problem it identifies.

The key advantages are accuracy and time. Mistakes can lead to sick customers. So can delays. By the time the samples are taken, the water they were drawn from is already on the way to the tap through a mains network 42,300km long.

The regional water company also expects to save up to £2m a year on its labour and overhead costs.

The new centre has replaced all but one of its 28 regional labs, and allowed the company to cut its staff of analysts from 230 to a little over 100.

Those that remain are more satisfied with their jobs, the company said. They will do the 15 per cent of tests deemed too complex for the robots, and verify results when the system's automated checks and balances throw up an anomaly.

The staff is being organised in teams, with a flat hierarchy that is remarkably similar to the way the robots are grouped in cells.