Robotic magnetic levitation system for handling pathology lab samples

30 July 2008

An innovative robotic sample management system developed by the Eureka funded PMS project carries out complex pathology sample transport operations rapidly and with a high level of reliability. It includes a new transport system based on maglev railway technologies, a new laboratory information system and a special selective analyser. PMS project partners are now hoping to market their transport system.

Recent years have seen a surge in healthcare costs around the world, leading to increasing demands for more efficient, cost-effective and competitive hospital services, including all sorts of analytical services.

“Today’s hospitals and medical clinics are under tremendous pressure to cut costs and improve overall efficiency,” explains Arnd Kreutztraeger of Germany’s Swisslab Medizinische Informationssysteme and one of the project participants. “Nowhere is this more evident than in large hospital laboratories, many of which are expected to carry out as many as 7000 sample analyses per day.”

Compounding the problem, says Kreutztraeger, is the fact that many patient samples have to be retrieved again and again for further testing. “In some cases we are talking about having to identify, locate and retrieve the same samples for second, third and fourth rounds of analyses,” he says. “The reliable storage and retrieval of such large numbers of samples is therefore an enormous and highly complex task, requiring state-of-the-art handling, transport, classification and verification systems.”

Swisslab is one of the leading software sellers in Germany, producing software for large medical laboratories, including lab information systems (LIS) for sample tracking, management and administration.

Swisslab and fellow partner Colenta Labortechnik of Austria came up with the idea for a robotic sample management system based on three key elements.

First, a hover railway uses magnetic forces to move sample carriages along a track. Already seen as revolutionary technology in the railway sector, magnetic hovering enables rapid movement with virtually no friction between carriage and rail. No other form of transport, say experts, delivers higher speeds more safely, either on the ground or in a lab.

Second, Swisslab developed a state-of-the-art laboratory information system and a special selective analyser to ensure samples are reliably identified, stored and retrieved. Finally, Austria's Colenta has been responsible for project leadership, co-ordinating the entire development process, from functional and technical planning to implementing results.

Swisslab and Colenta enlisted the help of the Institute of Sensor and Actuator Systems (ISAS) at the Technical University of Vienna to develop a magnetic hover railway system.

The PMS project has now delivered a system providing faster and more reliable pathology lab sample handling. This, says Kreutztraeger, means reduced patient retention periods in hospitals and the possibility of integrating emergency laboratory analyses within faster routine processing operations. "Re-sampling is also much easier,” he says. "This allows easy measurement of additional parameters and cost savings for differential diagnostic treatment. ” Finally, he adds, the danger of infection and sample mix-up is greatly reduced.

The project partners believe the technology is going to be suitable for other applications. Arnd Kreutztraeger cites one example: “Cleanrooms are just one example of a potential application for our new system.” Cleanrooms are special environments typically used in manufacturing or research where low levels of pollutants such as dust, airborne microbes, aerosol particles and chemical vapours are critical. “Our system is particularly well suited to automated transport operations in such environments,” he explains, “because it works without lubrication and needs virtually no maintenance.”

PMS partners are now looking for a larger company willing to invest in exploiting this exciting new technology further. They say it is destined to change the way things move in the medical sector.

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