Robot automates lab test in unconventional way

Company needed to photograph 96 test tubes with their accompanying barcodes with one shot and process 3000 test tubes Low-density lipoprotein particles

A new machine called the Data Matrix Scanner is going to automate a lab's procedures to test for cholesterol particles at high volume and without the messy turns and pitches of human error.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) particles (“bad cholesterol”) can convey cholesterol onto cells in the artery wall. Sometimes smaller LDL particles more ably slip through openings between cells lining the arteries. This can trigger a heart attack or stroke.

Particle testing is an advanced form of cholesterol testing. It is sometimes recommended (such as by the National Lipid Association) for people who have family history of heart disease at early ages or other risk factors.

The complete system

ARUP Laboratories RUP (a national reference laboratory and a non-profit enterprise of the University of Utah) needed to photograph, in one shot, 96 test tubes on a tray with their accompanying barcodes; and process 3000 test tubes a month while tracking the number and ID for each.

The system includes a camera, LED light bars and a miniature computer that allows the lab to scan codes and see results. All of that is enclosed in an instrument that was designed, built and tested by the automation team at ARUP.

Working by hand, finishing 93–96 specimens per tray took 2–3 hours.

Obstacles

Technicians wanted a machine to capture images of multiple 5mm-wide codes, record the data in software, then keep it for later reconciliation at the end of several steps.

While engineering teams at ARUP had experience in building automated instruments that could scan barcodes, they foresaw a problem in scanning 96 2D codes in a rack at once.

The engineers first used a simple barcode camera to test whether a camera could recognise the 2D codes. When this worked, the team asked the camera's manufacturer if their equipment could read 96 codes in one picture.

The manufacturer had a system that would do this, as long as users set up correct camera settings and sufficient lighting for the codes.

Thomas Jung, Lead Medical Technologist at ARUP, said: “We decided how to bring a lab in-house and our engineers took those technical needs and designed a solution. It's going to streamline our work.”

The Data Matrix Scanner and its accompanying instrument will debut in early summer for a cholesterol-particle test called LipoFit.

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