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Hospital 4.0: KUKA lab robots sort up to 3,000 blood samples per day

The university hospital in Aalborg, Denmark uses a system of lab robots and intelligent transport boxes to automatically monitor and sort blood samples. Pick&Place applications like this reduce the workload for hospital personnel and give them time for more valuable tasks.

Robots for automation of laboratories simplify workflow and ensure quality

Aalborg University Hospital is the largest hospital in the North Jutland region of Denmark. Up to 3,000 blood samples arrive here in the lab every day. They must be tested and sorted – a time-consuming and monotonous process which was done manually until now. The university hospital has now automated the procedure: two lab robots and intelligent transport boxes ensure the quality of the samples – and show how workflows in hospitals can be simplified by automation.
The KUKA robot of the KR AGILUS series checks and sorts up to 3,000 blood samples daily.

Robot arm for sorting of blood samples reduces the load on hospital personnel and ensures safety

Previously, the lab staff opened the transport boxes on arrival, removed the blood samples and sorted them for further clinical analysis. Because of the large number of boxes, the hospital employees often suffered from tendon and muscle injuries as a result of the repetitive work. “We wanted to automate this process to ease the burden on our employees,” explains Annebirthe Bo Hansen, Department Head at Aalborg University Hospital. “Furthermore, we were looking for a solution to improve monitoring of the quality and temperature of the blood samples.”
Support from the lab robots provides employees with more time for their work 

KUKA lab robots and RFID logger enable quality assurance

In order to optimize the workflow, LT Automation and Intelligent Systems developed a robotic solution as well as an innovative transport box. Two KUKA KR AGILUS series robots, a KR 3 and a KR 10, were installed in the Pick&Place application. “There were several reasons for choosing a robot from KUKA,” states LT Automation CEO Lasse Thomsen. “The robots meet the necessary technical requirements. Beyond this, their white external appearance fits with the image expected in a sterile environment.” 
The special feature of the “intelligent transport box” is the integrated RFID data logger, which not only tracks the transport route of every single box. The logger also saves what temperature was present inside the box at what time. A key factor, as explained by Annebirthe Bo Hansen: “To ensure the quality of the blood sample, the temperature must consistently be 21° C. A maximum deviation of a mere +/-1° C is allowed.” 
Intelligent transport boxes save the temperature of the blood samples read by the KUKA lab robot

The new technology has helped us to discover and rectify sources of error. That is an important improvement.

Annebirthe Bo Hansen, Department Head at Aalborg University Hospital

Blood samples travel long distances to reach the laboratory

The blood samples are taken in general medical practices in the region surrounding the hospital. At time of collection the courier scans the boxes, enabling their transport route to be tracked. The courier brings the blood samples to the hospital where they are scanned and registered on arrival.
A technician places the intelligent transport boxes on the input conveyor of the robotic system

Robot for lab automation automatically offloads incorrectly transported blood samples

In the lab, a technician places the transport boxes on the input conveyor of the robotic system. At that moment, an RFID scanner installed in the room reads the data logger. “If the scanner detects that the temperature inside a box has deviated from the specified temperature at any time during its journey, it automatically sends a notification to the robot,” explains Lasse Thomsen.
“The robot offloads the affected box from the system to the lab technician’s workplace.” The employee decides whether the blood samples in the box can still be used.

Efficient: the robot arm manages forty transport boxes per hour for the sorting of blood samples

If the data logger does not indicate any improper temperatures, the first lab robot opens the box, takes the blood samples out and sets them down for sorting. The second lab robot sorts the unpacked glass tubes by the color of their stopper, which it identifies with the aid of a scanner. The presorted samples are output from the system such that the lab technician can carry out the blood test. On average, the system needs 1.5 minutes per box, which is equivalent to a capacity of forty boxes per hour.
The robot arm for the sorting of blood samples sorts the glass tubes

Lab robots provide personnel with more time for higher-value tasks in daily work

“We are highly satisfied with this solution,” concludes Annebirthe Bo Hansen. “The working environment and workflows have improved considerably with this change.” The lab technicians now have more time to analyze the blood samples and also to spend with patients. In addition, the automated sorting and continuous temperature control have reduced potential sources of error.

The new system makes Aalborg University Hospital a forerunner on the path to ‘Hospital 4.0’

Anders Kjergaard Madsen, Technical Manager at LT Automation

Automation can help simplify workflows and assure high quality in times when there is a shortage of skilled personnel.” For this reason, Lasse Thomsen sees great potential in the robotic solution: it would be of interest to all hospitals with their own clinical biochemical lab, in this form or similar.

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