Episode 1: MEGA and me

This report is about my attempt of turning a – let’s say: piece of trash into a slave: A modern ‘Labordiener’ – or lab servant: A pipetting robot, almost 4 free!

4-Channel Pipetting RobotThe story commences when last Monday, 55kg of technology arrived: They were 12.07 Euros (about 15USD) on eBay, plus 55 Euros for shipping. Half year ago, the machine was for sale by a used lab equipment company for 400 times as much. Nobody dared to buy it (maybe they even didn’t dare to sell it :). Now I got it. Lucky me? Was it a Schnäppchen (a snip)? Hopefully…

You don’t know what MEGA is about? It can move its 4 pipets in a subset of the x/y/z space. And it is controlled by software. Nice, isn’t it, uh? That means, YOU (I) can make IT do everything you (I) want. Everything? At least in terms of lab slavery. Thus,  should I better call MEGA a PostDoc? No. Better call it lab rat (Rattus norvegicus laboratorius). PostDocs at least sometimes may have some fun… I am allowed to say that. I was a PostDoc. Once upon a time. Long time ago. Now I am a Lab Director. At least, my business card says so. What has changed? A lot: Although (or because) I have no slaves (yet, and I’ll never get PostDocs in the sense of Academia Labs, as I am working for a private enterprise) , I still spend a lot of my time on the bench. But I am not surviving from grant to grant. Anymore. Lucky me!

Really need to be so sarcastic? Definitely!!! If you haven’t gone through that life, you never know how science really is.

Back to MEGA! Although MEGA is 20 years old, it actually doesn’t look like that. It is in very good shape. Optically at least. With it came a box with lots of dear dingies like microplate holders, spare parts, a manual (indispensible, as you’ll see later) and 3 HD 5.25″ floppies with some bytes of software on them (actually, just 2 disks and the 2nd almost empty. The 3rd floppy contains diagnosis programs…). Almost unthinkable that bare 2 MBytes are enough to make such a machine work? Well, it’s just about controlling a few stepper motors and syringe pumps. Of course, one may inflate such a program to half a gigabyte…

To connect the MEGA with a modern computer is (was) no real problem. All needed was a serial port! Luckily, I have kept a 5.25″ disk drive from long ago and nicely, most current mainboards still have a connector for them…. The MEGA software runs from the command line in the 16 Bit subsystem of Windows (W2K and XP ok, WINE on OpenSuseLinux11.2 and FreeDos in a VirtualBox (my preferred setup) to be tested and implemented later, when the machine should turn out to be really functional and be used in a lab). However, install crashed W2K SP4 running in VirtualBox in way that made the whol VM inaccesible.

Install on a native XP Professional worked smoothely. With some tricks (SUBST command) it also may be installed directly from a harddrive or USB stick. The files from each disk need to be in a separate directory. After install, create a subdirectory in /MEGA, name it DIAGNOSE and copy the files from the diagnostic tools disk there. That’s all.

When I turned on the MEGA, it didn’t power up, due to a failure of the mains switch. It was a 2EUR standard part, easy to replace. Also, the ‘ready’ light failed a few minutes after I had solved the switch problem. I replaced it with a super-bright green LED, fitted with an appropriate current limiting resistor. Looks great now, namely in the dark (but would you like to work then???) This makes me think of lab equipment modding: Wow! It will look great when your lab has as many flashing signals as the Star Trek Control Room! This single superbright LED just was the beginning!

MEGA connects to the PC through a serial (RS232) port. I tried a Sempron 3000+ tower that I got from a neighbour company (discarded as defect, all I had to do was to vaccuum the air ducts :) – Thank You!!!). The connection to the instrument worked instantly. And the self test, something like a “Tradefair & Roadshow Gizmo Mode”, set the MEGA into action. I am happy for tonight and stop forther testing the machine.

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