I have always been a tinker. As a child I tore things apart to see what was inside. As a teenager I became slightly more constructive as I started to build things. As part of my master’s course work, I took two semesters in digital electronics and thought I had entered Heaven. Creating circuits with integrated circuits became more fun than anything I had encountered before. Having a natural knack for it did not hurt either. Graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill with my master’s in education, I started teaching high school (chemistry and physics). My first year, I drew a circuit diagram that was 8 feet tall and 10 feet long for a multiple timing system for track. I never built it, but designing it was lots of fun. During my 4th year of teaching I left public education and moved to Jackson, MS to help open a planetarium. This job allowed me to do even more digital design work and implementation as well. After 18 months I moved back to NC and went to work for Biomedical Reference Labs in Burlington, NC. There I used my electronics to maintain clinical testing equipment. Being the resident digital guru, I was given the task of keeping a particular piece of equipment running that others found hard to do. After about 6 months, I told my supervisor that I could replace the aging equipment (that cost us $8000 used) with a new modern box that would cost under $1000. I was first laughed at, and then allowed to build a prototype to back up my claim. The new box worked as advertised and became a standard in the company (then known as Roche Biomedical Labs). The original equipment was know as a SMART (sequential multiple automated recording terminal). While I called my version the 1802-SR (the 1802 was the microprocessor used, and SR for smart replacement), a senior VP for the company named it the Fansler Automated Reporting Terminal – or the FART – a name that stuck with the box.
The 1802-SR was the first of several devices I built over the next few years to either collect data from clinical test equipment, or to transmit the results to the doctor’s offices. This humble box lead to a five year project that in the end lead to the issuing of a U.S. & European patent and having a production model sold by Olympus Medical (part of the people who make cameras)
To try and understand the need of Roche Automated Aliquot System, other wise known as the RAAS, let me give you an overview of part of what goes on in a major testing clinical lab on any given night. Samples of blood are taken in a doctor’s office (or clinic, or small hospital) during the day. These samples are the collected in the late afternoon by couriers for the lab, who bring them back to the lab. As the samples came in, they were handled by a group of data entry people who would enter the patient data into the lab computer, along with what tests were requested. The system would assign a 10 digit specimen number to the sample that was then printed and placed on the test tube. These test tubes would then be placed in sequential order on a table. The computer would then generate a list of samples for each technician in the building (each technician would be responsible for a particular test – high volume test would have several technicians). Each technician would then come out to the sorting table with their list of sample numbers. They were to find a sample, verify the 10 digit sample number, pour off how much of the ample they needed to run their test, re-verify the 10 digit sample number and replace the sample back into the correct position. Once they had collected their samples for the first run they would leave the sorting area.
The system was open to errors – from the data entry people mislabeling the tube to the technicians not reading the 10 digit specimen number twice (or even once) but rather just going by the position of the tube. The mind boggling part of this is that the Burlington lab in the early 1990’s would receive as many as 18,000 tubes of blood on any Monday night! I recently saw where Lab Corp (formed from a merger involving RBL) takes in over 30,000 tubes a night.
The same VP who christened the FART called me to his office one day to share a vision he had and wanted me to spend 6 months exploring from a feasibility standpoint. From his vision, the RAAS was born. Someone higher up the food chain mentioned the project was to the management of our parent company, Hoffman-LaRoche, and the 6 months was reduced to under 6 weeks before inquires were being made as to when the machine would be finished!
The RAAS was an attempt to do a couple of things: 1) reduce error on handling specimens, and 2) reduce the number of people needed to handle specimens and perform data entry.
It was obvious from the beginning that barcodes would be used to identify samples. I had to develop a new test requisition form for the doctors to use. This new form has several removable barcode labels (each the same number, but different from any other form) that are removed and affixed to any samples for that particular patient. The same form has the same barcode number as the labels. I saw this same from being used just a couple of years ago when I had blood drawn at a LabCorp satellite lab. Now when a sample came in, the data entry person scanned the barcode on the test requisition and did a quick entry of the test requested – patient information (not needed to run a test would wait until later). As before the host computer would generate work lists for technicians.
Rather than humans coming to find the samples, the samples would be loaded into racks and feed into the RAAS. All actions from this point forward until the samples were removed were done without human intervention. The RAAS would read the barcode on the sample and communicate with the host computer to find out what test(s) had been ordered on this sample. A new tube for each test requested would be prepared, with a matching barcode label, and placed into a continuous loop chain. The original sample would have the blood serum extracted from it and enough serum would be aliquot into the waiting tubes. The original sample would then move down the machine to an exit point. A human operator would remove the samples and place them in refrigerated storage. The aliquot sample in the continuous loop chain would then move over the sorter. This was a section where samples could be placed into one of fifty racks according to what test was to be performed on the sample. Up to 50 samples could be placed at one time, using a unique elevator/trap door system. As the racks of aliquot samples exited the RAAS, technicians would come and gather the samples for their test, knowing that the samples were correct and they had enough serum to perform their test.
The patent came from the part of the machine where samples were actually aliquot. Cross contamination is a major concern in a lab. If a sample of blood positive for HIV was tested just before a non-positive HIV sample, you could not have any of the HIV positive serum getting into the next sample, therefore returning a possible false positive HIV and making someone’s life very scary. An idea was developed during a trip to Japan by the same senior VP, an assistant VP and I, during 30 minutes of brain storming. We called the item the THH for Tokyo Half Hour. A disposable dispenser/filter was conceived that would be inserted into a tube of blood serum. The act of inserting the THH forced the serum through the filter, thus cleaning the serum from any fibrous material typically found in blood. A tube ran from the bottom of the THH to a spout outside (think tea spout). A hollow metal tube was inserted into the top of the THH, sealing the inside from the outside air. Air could be forced down the tube pushing the serum up and out the spout. Controlling the air pressure would regulate how much serum was dispensed. Since each original specimen received its own THH, there was no chance of cross contamination. While this was a unique and never before method for filtering and dispensing serum, thus the U.S. and European patent, in the end it was decided to be cost prohibitive as it would add $0.03 to the cost of every test.
The RAAS took 5 years from conception to birth. The project started off with only me, and ended up with an additional 5 people working on it at the end. Two of the people were Olympus employees from Japan who lived in the US for a year while they worked on the project. Once the prototype was finished, it was torn down and shipped to Japan where it was reassembled in an Olympus facility and studied by a team of engineers to design a version more manufacture friendly. I was honored to be able to accompany the RAAS to Japan to set it back up and help in explaining its operation. With Olympus now in charge, I suggested OAAS (Olympus Automated Aliquot System), which they took to heart, but spelled it Oasis. I am aware of a couple of versions the Oasis went through. Today Olympus is selling the OLA2500 Lab Automation System with the same concept as was originally developed with the RAAS.
The RAAS was my last project with Roche Biomedical Labs. Infighting between the finance division (we are not an engineering company) and the laboratory division (but we can design and build equipment to our own specifications) was eventually won by finance.
I continued to build personal projects before, during and after the construction of the RAAS – albeit none quite so grand. A couple of later projects involve my sailboat – which I love, and mowing – which I hate!
The anchor on my sailboat, Annabelle, weighs 60 pounds. The chain connected to it weighs 1 pound per foot. So it I am anchored in 20 feet of water, I would typically have the anchor and 60 feet of chain out – 120 pounds. Pulling that up is a back breaking chore. To ease the work, I have an electric windlass – a device for raising and lowering the anchor – with just the push of a button I can raise or lower the anchor. Most people who do not sail do not realize that there is a minimum amount of rode (the chain or rope connecting to an anchor) must be played out according to how deep the water is. Today’s anchors do not hold in place by weight, but rather by a plow action. The anchor looks much like a plow and pulls itself deeper into the bottom as the boat pulls on it. If the rode is too short, then when the boat pulls on the anchor, rather than pulling it parallel to the bottom, it will pull it up off the bottom and the boat will drift. In order to make sure I have enough rode deployed I modified my windless to display how much chain has been played out. The final gear inside the windlass had a pair of magnets placed in it, 180 degrees apart. As the gear turns these magnets pass over a magnet sensor – each pass of a magnet would mean 6 inches of chain had moved. By knowing which way the gear was moving, a counter keeps up with the count and displays the information in the cockpit.
Lawngrazer was an idea conceived following a trip to Disney World. There Weed Eater was once showing an automated lawnmower. This electric powered device would randomly wander around a yard cutting the grass. It relied on the unit running everyday in a random pattern to keep the whole yard cut. An underground wire would keep the mower from leaving the yard. My version is smaller and is designed to cut random 10 foot by 10 foot squares. Again, by allowing it to cut every day, the randomness should keep the yard cut. This project is still under development. It currently is just a motorized base to develop the programs for cutting the squares. Once basic functions are programmed, it will go to school with me to roam my class room and entertain and challenge my students to enter the world of robotics.
Yes, I have gone full circle – after a hiatus of 24 years I am once again teaching high school chemistry and physics, hoping to alter a few minds to think outside the box and see that the world is a wonderful place where the only limits are the ones we place on ourselves and with a vivid imagination, anything is possible.
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