Healthcare Research Hub Shows Collaborative Robot’s Place in Medical Lab

ABB’s mobile and autonomous YuMi cobot can help support common medical tasks and alleviate bottlenecks in lab work. It’s happening at ABB’s first global healthcare research hub at the Texas Medical Center.

With a mobile version of its collaborative robot YuMi on hand, ABB is showcasing its healthcare capabilities—assisting medical and laboratory staff at the Houston-based Texas Medical Center (TMC), which, as the largest medical city in the world, treats some 10 million patients a year. At the opening of ABB’s first global healthcare research hub, the dual-arm mobile cobot showed not only how it could navigate its way around human co-workers autonomously, but also perform a wide range of repetitive and time-consuming activities such as medicine preparation, centrifuge loading and unloading, pipetting and handling of liquids, and test tube handling and sorting.

These are developments that could greatly benefit an industry faced with advances in diagnosis and treatment in conjunction with an aging population, increasing costs, and a growing shortage of medical staff. ABB analysis shows that automation could complete repetitive tasks up to 50 percent faster than today’s manual processes, with the added benefit that robots can work 24 hours a day.

Healthcare is also an industry that could see considerable growth opportunities for robotics. By ABB’s own estimates, the global market should reach almost 60,000 non-surgical medical robots by 2025, a fourfold increase from 2018.

“Together with ABB, we envisioned a whole new world that we could use robotics as the core for our innovation—in our labs, in the way that our hospitals work, in the logistics and the way that we refine the processes in healthcare,” said Bill McKeon, President and CEO of TMC. “Healthcare’s changing dramatically. We have shortages of people; we have shortages of talent. ABB Robotics is bringing that technology and putting it right at the center of all the innovation at the medical center.”

ABB’s 5,300-sq-ft healthcare research hub at the TMC Innovation Institute aims to develop solutions for the challenges that the healthcare sector faces. “Our experience in industrial and collaborative robotics will give us a strong basis to be able to adapt flexible automation to the healthcare sector,” said Sami Atiya, President of ABB’s Robotics and Discrete Automation business. “Together with our partners at TMC, we will develop cutting-edge robotics solutions. We are working to reduce the number of manual procedures performed by medical staff, improve the accuracy of laboratory work, and enhance patient satisfaction and ultimately patient safety.”

In a video demonstrating the mobile laboratory robot concept, ABB’s YuMi robot is shown in test tube handling operations and making its way around the lab. An IRB 1200 robot also executes liquid transfers in a pipetting application. Robotic automation can help support these common medical laboratory tasks through a combination of consistent performance, continuous operation, and flexibility that could increase throughput and quality while minimizing costs. It will help to eliminate bottlenecks in laboratory work, executives said, and will address the global shortage of skilled medical and hospital staff.

“Enabling robots now in the clinical laboratory to perform these very highly repetitive, high-volume functions each day is going to enable our medical technologists in the laboratory to focus on other tasks in the laboratory,” said Dr. James Versalovic, Pathologist-in-Chief at Texas Children’s Hospital. “And together we can do so much more to serve our patients.”

The mobile YuMi could also be used in hospitals for a wide variety of logistics roles. YuMi may be able to dispense medicines, transport them to where they are needed in hospitals, and bring medical supplies to hospital staff and bed linen direct to patients’ bedrooms.

At the hub’s opening event, B&R Industrial Automation (which ABB acquired in 2017) also demonstrated its AcoposTrak intelligent track technology, an adaptive machine concept that integrates seamlessly with robots to automate tasks requiring high variability, precision and mass customization. The adaptive machine brings a new level of flexibility to product handling, assembly, and packaging in the healthcare industry as well, executives noted.


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