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Sustainable Energy

Molecular Biology Workstation

Project Overview
This project involved creation of the control software for a molecular biology workstation (MBW), which was a general purpose, programmable chemical reaction controller. The workstation supported a number of 96 well reaction plates, some of which could be incubated under program control. The MBW featured a flexible, robotic pipetting unit and was to allow the user to create libraries of reaction protocols, which would permit automated running of hundreds of reactions simultaneously. The workstation design was flexible, supporting a wide variety of different experiments including DNA sequencing. Among the protocols supported were Sanger, Bst, Taq, Single-stranded template, Double-stranded template, Fluorescent primers, Fluorescent terminators, and Maxim-Gilbert.

The control software was to support clear, efficient protocol creation and archiving and a run-time executive that managed reactions while permitting a vivid graphical display of the current state of any of the hundreds of possible reactions under way at any given time.

Software Design and Methodology
The requirements definition for this project was extremely well done and appeared stable from the outset. Therefore, we decided to capitalize on this perceived stability by selecting a staged delivery development methodology. This methodology breaks the development process into milestones with the proviso that each deliverable represents essentially the final form of the modules in the delivered set. This methodology requires that the project be partitioned into stages such that the deliverables for stage N will work correctly without those for stage N+1. The nature of this project was such that the required factoring could be successfully done.

The software requirements definition was complete months before the first hardware prototype was to be available from the hardware contractor. Thus, the first software modules to be designed and built were for the preparative operations such as the protocol editor and archival management module. Subsequent delays in the hardware prototype schedule forced the development of an instrument simulator, which then allowed construction, and testing of the actual instrument control and reaction display modules.

Project Outcome
Thanks, in large part, to the excellent specifications for this product, the software development effort was successfully concluded after 13 months. Although this was technically one month beyond the projected schedule, the software contained all of its originally specified functionality plus a protocol optimizer, which was added after the original schedule was created.

Excellent design documents and internal embedded documentation allowed for further development and maintenance by in-house developers. Although we were on-call for problems in the field, we never received any defect reports from customers. We were told that users found the GUI very intuitive and efficient to use.