CEO SUMMARY: In Salt Lake City, Utah, work is underway to pioneer use of an electro-magnetic conveyor system to automate the movement of large volumes of lab test specimens throughout the testing facility of ARUP Laboratories. Within two years, this new lab automation technology could allow the reference lab to accommodate a 60% increase in lab test volume over current levels. The transport system uses magnets and is capable of moving up to 15,000 specimens per hour.
AS TEST VOLUMES RISE, all labs seek increased efficiency to boost throughput in every way possible. That makes lab automation a subject of high interest and no lab is a bigger user of lab automation than ARUP Laboratories of Salt Lake City, Utah.
In response to current and projected increases in specimen volume, ARUP is expanding its laboratory automation infrastructure. It is also preparing to pioneer a new lab automation technology that uses a magnet array to move specimens on the transport line.
“ARUP’s automation project seeks to increase its specimen-handling capacity by 60% within two years,” declared Charles D. Hawker, Ph.D., MBA. He is ARUP’s Scientific Director of Automation and Special Projects, and is internationally-recognized for his expertise in clinical laboratory automation.
ARUP’s automation expansion is ambitious. “Design of this new automation system will accommodate an increase in capacity of 300% above current levels— should the need arise,” noted Hawker. The heart of the project is a new automated conveyor [specimen transport] system that uses electro-magnetic technology to move specimens along the line.”
A Professor (Adjunct) of Pathology at the University of Utah School of Medicine, Hawker explained that, as ARUP adds specimens, it has a critical need for more efficiency in workflow throughout the laboratory. “Everything we have is custom designed for our particular needs for high volume reference esoteric testing,” he noted. “Because we serve only hospitals and do not perform routine testing or serve physician offices, everything in our lab automation layout is custom.
Custom Lab Automation
“For example, we operate a two-story storage freezer that is all-robotic,” noted Hawker. “It rapidly retrieves specimens for repeat or additional testing. We also have unique technologies, such as the world’s only automated workcells for thawing and mixing.
“Use of laboratory automation at ARUP helped us to more than double the productivity of our technical workforce,” he added. “Other important benefits are a 30% reduction in turnaround time and a decrease in the incidence of lost specimens to Six Sigma levels.”
According to Hawker, one big jump in capacity will come from the installation of the new automated specimen transport system. “We began testing the new MagneMover LITE system manufactured by MagneMotion and the goal is to implement this system by June 2014,” he said.
Reduced Maintenance Costs
“This automated line is between 50% to 100% more expensive than a more traditional conveyor system,” explained Hawker. “The increased acquisition cost is justified by its expected life cycle and substantially lower costs for electricity and maintenance.
“Electric power consumption will be lower because the electro-magnetic field technology uses less power than conventional motor-driven chain-type conveyors,” he continued. “Also, we concluded that costs will be much lower over the MagneMover’s lifetime of 20-plus years because of lower maintenance costs. This conveyor system has virtually no moving parts.
“Over the next 24 months, we will test the MagnaMover system together with other new lab automation components,” stated Hawker. “These include new robotic sorters, a thawing and mixing workcell, a pick-and-place robot, and another robot that inspects specimens to see if they’re mislabeled.
“We will observe how the MagnaMover transport system interacts with these other systems,” added Hawker. “Our programmers can program it for routing and puck management. We’ll use dummy patient names and tubes filled with water. If problems are observed, we’ll have time to make corrections.”
Since the second half of the 1990s, ARUP Laboratories has been one of the world’s largest users of clinical laboratory automation. Hawker and his colleagues have repeatedly worked with vendors to design customized solutions to automate specific workflow tasks.
Thus, ARUP’s decision to invest in an electro-magnetic transport system is likely to be studied and copied by other clinical laboratory organizations.
Electro-Magnetic System Can Move Lab Specimens
FOR ARUP LABORATORIES, one way to efficiently increase capacity to handle steady growth in lab test specimens is to expand its use of laboratory automation.
Already one of the world’s largest and most-automated clinical laboratories, ARUP was challenged to find an automated specimen transport system that would allow it to handle the projected increase in lab test specimens. It is turning to a new automation technology to address this challenge.
ARUP is preparing to install a new electro-magnetic automation line manufactured by MagneMotion of Devens, Massachusetts. MagneMotion’s electro-magnetic field conveyor systems use linear synchronous motors (LSMs) to move items.
MagneMotion says that, “LSMs generate propulsive force by creating an electro-magnetic field that interacts with a set of magnets on a vehicle to create thrust. The magnets and vehicle are propelled by the moving electro-magnetic field, traveling along as electric current is applied to the stator beneath the vehicle.”
When ARUP’s MagnaMotion automated lab specimen transport system becomes fully operational in June 2014, it will be one of the first times that an electro-magnetic conveyor system has been used in a clinical laboratory to move lab test specimens.