A Closer Look at ABB’s New Research Hub for Healthcare Robotics

Image: ABB

October 09, 2019      

HOUSTON – During the opening of its new global research hub for robotics at the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation center, ABB demonstrated for the first time publicly a concept of a two-armed YuMi collaborative robot on wheels, which could travel between workstations to perform different laboratory tasks. More importantly, the mobile YuMi robot (not an official name, but that’s what officials kept calling it) got the essential task of cutting the ribbon to officially open the center.

ABB mobile YuMi healthcare robot

A mobile YuMi concept robot delivers lab samples in a healthcare setting. Image: ABB

At the grand opening of the 5,300-square-foot facility, officials from TMC, ABB, the media and other members of the public gathered to tour the new lab space, which showcases a number of applications in robotics aimed at the healthcare space. According to ABB’s internal research, more than 60,000 non-surgical medical robots are expected to be working in hospitals by 2025.

Multiple repetitive tasks

In addition to the mobile YuMi demonstration, the center showcased several robotic applications aimed at laboratory settings, in which different ABB cobots could assist researchers with tasks such as opening sample bags, sorting samples for preparation, and even loading into a centrifuge. Like other robotics applications in other industries, the goal is to have the robots perform much of the repetitive or mundane tasks within a worker’s duties. ABB said its analysis showed that repetitive tasks could be completed up to 50% faster with automation compared to current manual processes, and that robots can also work 24 hours per day. In one discussion during the opening, officials talked about researchers who worked until about 2 a.m. in their tasks, repeating the process the next day. With a robot that could perform the manual and repetitive tasks overnight, a researcher could come in the next day and have their research work (the tasks that humans excel at) ready to be performed.

Dr. Sami Atiya, ABB.

“We believe we can bring a lot of value to this industry by providing technology that supports taking away the dull and repetitive work, and letting physicians focus on what they do best, which is take care of patients and do more patient care than ever before,” said Sami Atiya, president of ABB’s robotics and discrete automation business. He said trends such as the aging population, increasing healthcare costs, and a growing shortage of medical staff are contributing to the need for more automation within health care settings. “Our experience in industrial and collaborative robotics will give us a strong basis to be able to adapt flexible automation to the healthcare sector,” Atiya added.

In addition to the cobots performing laboratory tasks, the mobile YuMi demonstation showed that robots could perform multiple tasks within the lab environment. At the event, the mobile YuMi concept robot was able to do some pipetting tasks, and then move to a second workstation, while automatically switching its end-of-arm tool in the process. The robot would be able to sense and navigate around human co-workers autonomously, while learning to find different routes from one location to another, ABB said. The concept robot could be used to prepare medicine, load and unload centrifuges, pipetting and handling liquids, and pick up and sort test tupes. In hospitals, the mobile robot could be used to dispense medicine, bring medical supplies to hospital staff, and bed linens directly to a patient’s room.

William McKeon, Texas Medical Center.

Bill McKeon, president and CEO of Texas Medical Center, said he was looking forward to working with ABB on coming up with new applications for robots that could move beyond the laboratory settings, such as having robots retrieve and return samples from cold storage freezers, to materials handling tasks across the campus. In addition, he said having ABB at the TMC Innovation Institute would allow them to collaborate on new robotic applications for the entire medical city.

“We’re the largest medical city in the world,” said McKeon. “Why wouldn’t we take a leader in robotics to work arm in arm with us in every aspect to provide care and reimagine a new campus … we imagine with ABB Robotics that we’re going to reimagine the entire research campus and use robotics that really allow us to be more efficient, which means more time spent with the next generation of discoveries to advance health care.”

In addition to working on robotics projects for the TMC, ABB’s presence at the Innovation Institute would also allow for collaboration with other companies in the innovation hub, including startups and other medical device companies to get some hands-on experiences with the ABB robots. McKeon said the key to innovation is to have members from across different areas “colliding into one another” to come up with new ideas, and adding ABB and robotics to the mix would benefit everyone involved.

“What’s really exciting is finding the best partners in the world and unleashing them in an innovation environment like this,” said McKeon. “Having access to this amount of patients, and more importantly, the minds of the great physicians in this medical center. It’s really exciting to see the discoveries that are going to come from that.”

At the opening of the ABB global research hub for healthcare robotics, ABB and Texas Medical Officials await the arrival of a robot that would cut the ribbon.

For ABB, which already has applied robotics and automation within the automotive, electronics, food & beverage, and logistics, the move into non-surgical healthcare is a natural move for the company’s ability to automate manual tasks. “I firmly believe that this is the right time where technology and the knowledge would come together to create absolutely something new,” said Atiya. “But we are also here to do business, as we believe that the business for non-surgical robots in 2025 will have roughly 60,000 robots in this industry. So there’s a huge potential to improve from a business perspective.”

Video: Mobile YuMi robot cuts the ribbon to open the new center: