NEW YORK – Swiss automation company ABB is looking to move its robotics technology into the clinical laboratory.
Through collaborations with institutions like the Texas Medical Center and Karolinska University Hospital, the firm is exploring how robotics might help with various laboratory tasks, including repetitive and labor-intensive portions of the lab workflow like preanalytical processing of specimens.
Automation is common in the clinical lab, with technologies like track systems and liquid handling platforms used to manipulate and move specimens throughout facilities. ABB, however, is working to develop tools to address less widely automated portions of the lab workflow such as registering and spinning down specimens.
The company is also developing what is calls "collaborative robots" that can move throughout a laboratory as needed and learn new applications in a flexible manner.
"We believe that the new technology of collaborative robots connected with vision systems and machine learning will enable new applications," said Jose Manuel Collados, healthcare solutions business line manager at ABB, adding that such robots would "be able to navigate any space and do different tasks."
"There is a lot of automation in hospitals and especially in the clinical lab, but we believe that robots can bring much more flexibility compared to more linear types of automation," he said.
Collados also noted that the flexibility of the company's systems will allow labs to better maximize their usefulness.
"When we use robots in any industry we are always concerned with using them as much as possible," he said. "We don't like to see equipment that is standing idle."
A clinical lab, however, involves a greater diversity of tasks than, for instance, an auto assembly line, where a robotics system could run around the clock doing essentially the same thing without stop.
"That would never happen in a clinical lab," Collados said. "So what we will have is a device that can move [throughout a facility] doing different tasks."
The Zurich-based company last year installed one of its YuMi collaborative robots at Karolinska University Hospital where it is used to open the packaging sleeves used to transport specimens and then scan those specimen tubes into the lab information system.
Collados noted that this might look like a "very dumb" application, given its rote, repetitive nature, but he said the robot is able to register hundreds of thousands of samples per year, freeing human staff for more complicated tasks. It also helps reduce human errors that can result in incorrectly entered or lost specimens.
He noted that as one of the largest hospital labs in Sweden, the Karolinska facility already has cutting-edge automation. Even so, processes like registering specimens arriving in containers of various shapes and sizes is challenging for its existing systems.
This has also proved a major challenge for laboratories doing SARS-CoV-2 testing, as facilities accustomed to dealing with hundreds of samples per day have found themselves processing many times that number. In addition to the increase in sample volume, Collados said labs have struggled from an automation standpoint to deal with the variety in specimen container types they have seen as different sample types have been used for testing. Many labs have addressed this issue by hiring more staff to handle preanalytical portions of the workflow, but he suggested that robotics systems like ABB's could potentially help fill that gap in the future.
Working with Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*STAR) Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC), ABB has deployed its robots as part of what it has termed its Rapid Automated Volume Enhancer (RAVE) system, which allows automation of some manual sample processing steps involved in molecular SARS-CoV-2 testing. The partners began using the system in July, and with it are able to process roughly 4,000 samples per day.
ABB is also involved in a pilot project at the Polytechnic University of Milan using its YuMi robot to more fully automate COVID-19 serology testing. According to the company, it will be able to automate roughly 80 percent of the serology testing workflow and analyze up to 450 samples per hour.
In the US, the firm has established a research collaboration with Texas Medical Center to identify where its technology could prove useful.
"They came to [TMC] to really start to understand use cases where robotics could be helpful in the hospital in driving up efficiencies and driving down costs," said Thomas Luby, director of TMC Innovation. "We're collaborating with them to make sure they are talking to the right people in the different hospitals."
The partners are piloting a YuMi robot system for centrifuging samples as they come into the lab at Texas Children's Hospital.
"It's up and running and they are collecting data on it," Luby said. "It's able to pull samples, read the label to make sure they are the right samples, throw them in the centrifuge, spin them, take them out, and then place them back onto the track to move down the processing line."
He said that long term the goal is to fully automate the sample receipt and processing workflow.
Such a system would bring a number of advantages, Luby said, including the ability to process and run samples around the clock, reduce human error, and help address the staffing shortages currently facing many clinical labs.
He said ABB's YuMi robotic systems represent a different approach to lab automation in that they can be more flexibly integrated into different workflows than existing automation, much of which works within self-contained modules.
Luby said that while the current effort is a pilot project, he anticipates TMC incorporating the YuMi systems into its regular workflows relatively quickly, perhaps within the next year.
"We'll get the pilot data, make any adjustments that are necessary, and then I think the robot will go right in," he said.