Busy medical testing lab a healthy showcase of automation efficiencies.
As one of the largest medical testing laboratories in the United States, ARUP Laboratories is naturally a highly automated facility.
Headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Associated Regional and University Pathologists, Inc. (ARUP) is home to one of the world’s largest clinical laboratory freezers—operating at -20°C—outfitted with a two-storey AS/RS (automated storage and retrieval system that can hold up to 5,220 stainless- steel storage trays of specimens on indexed shelf locations, with total capacity of over 2.3 million individual specimens.
At the heart of the operation is a highly-automated sorting and transport system consisting of two Motoman robotic sorters—used to and unload finished specimens into storage trays—and continuous-flow Shuttleworth “smart” conveyors, which jointly retrieve and transport specimens for clinical testing in less than 2.5 minutes, with a capacity of handling 4,000
specimens per hour.
Formed in 1984 as a national clinical and anatomic pathology reference laboratory and a wholly-owned enterprise of the University of Utah’s Department of Pathology, ARUP today employs over 2,500 people and offers in excess of 2,000 tests and test combinations—ranging from routine screening tests to highly esoteric molecular and genetic assays.
Billing itself as a role model for bridging the gap between academic medicine and successful business enterprise, ARUP was not always the showcase of precision automation and high-volume, efficient laboratory specimen handling it is today, according to George Falk, project specialist at ARUP’s Central Support Services Group.
“Before the arrival of automation, ARUP was using walk-in freezers at three different locations to store specimens,” recalls Falk. “The samples were stored manually in cardboard trays, with a capacity of about 400,000 specimens.
“To find a sample, a lab technician had to go into the walk-in freezer with a box number (an X/Y reference) and search manually, and the personnel were required to enter the freezer in pairs for safety reasons, wearing coats—making looking for a specimen a fairly labor-intensive and time-consuming process.”
Because of ARUP’s esoteric testing environment—whereby more than 1,000 different tests comprise 80 per cent of its test volume—the amount of small-batch tests handled by ARUP required an urgent automation overhaul, relates Falk, to eliminate of excessive handling and sorting; improve the tracking, storage and retrieval of specimens for repeat or additional testing; and enable real-time communication among all of ARUP’s laboratory related software systems.
The lab’s upgrade commenced with installation of a proprietary ARUP software system called ESP (Expert Specimen Processing) to facilitate rules-based automation of its specimen processing, along with enabling automated storage of specimens and complete specimen tracking.
The initial computer input of the specimen information is done in the doctor’s office and assigned a barcode, explains Falk, which is then logged into the ESP software.
Even before the sample arrives at ARUP, all of the specimen’s data—where it is going and what needs to be done with it—is made available in real time, and the ESP then tracks the specimen with laser scanning of the attached barcode throughout its entire life-cycle within the system.