Ohio State Medical Center Hums With The Help Of Robots

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The OSU Medical Center employs 46 Automatic Guided Vehicles to move food, linens, medicine and trash throughout Rhodes Hall, The James Cancer Hospital, Doan Hall and the Ross Heart Hospital.(Photo: Marilyn Smith/WOSU)

The Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State is a busy place bustling with thousands of patients and nearly 17-thousand workers. But the Medical Center also employs a small cadre of workers the staff and public rarely see. They are busy 24/7 and keep medical supplies, food, linens and trash moving smoothly through three hospital buildings.

The cavernous basement of Rhodes Hall is described as Grand Central Station for good reason. A swarm of Automatic Guided Vehicles whiz and whir: slide and glide through the hallways powered by nickel cadmium batteries and guided by series of computer-controlled censors installed overhead and in the floor.

They’re robots.

And when something or someone gets in their way they stop on a dime.

At $68 thousand dollars apiece the Medical Center has made a substantial investment in its 46 robotic carts.
Tom Shubert oversees the fleet. He says while the initial outlay was high the system paid for itself in five years and saves money every year.

“We estimate we’re saving at least a million dollars a million and a half dollars a year just in full time employees salaries and also workman compensation claims.”

The carts are confined to their own bank of elevators and hallways. Schubert says they are pre-programmed to drop off various supplies to the right place.

“Anything from hot meals going up to the patients to taking out dirty laundry, emptying the trash, taking case carts to operating rooms.”

Evolving customer service

Mike Folino is one of the people who manages food prep and delivery at the hospital. He says the robots have allowed them to evolve from a standard breakfast, lunch dinner delivery system to an individual room-service model. The ingredients for patient meals are shipped from the main cafeteria by the robots to a series of small finishing kitchens or hospitality centers located throughout the hospital.

“The chefs behind the cook line, they wait for a printer to come up. It prints up the ticket. And then all the components of the meal we brought up via robotics is ready there and they prepare it depending on the time that they want it. And then we deliver to the patient room by hand.”

The room service model allows patients to eat breakfast before tests are performed or eat dinner after visitors leave.

Delivery service

Tom Schubert says the robotic carts make 2200 moves or deliveries a day. And while no full time employees were laid off when the system came on line, it would take 98 people to replace them. And he says the robots are more efficient and less likely to get hurt.

“All those moves made by the vehicles means that we don’t have people pulling carts down hallways, across carpets, into an elevator. We had a lot of back injuries because of pulling these carts because they can get pretty heavy with a full load.”

And to make sure no full loads get stranded in the hallways or elevators, the carts are programmed to return to their charging docks when their batteries hit a certain level.

“When they get down to about 80 percent of a charge they will let the server know that they need to get a snack and the server directs it to the nearest charger.

Schubert says the robots go through a safety check once a week and regular maintenance.

“Kinda like changing the oil in your car. They have to have their hydraulic fluids changed. They have to have their motors rebuilt every six-thousand hours of service.”

Using their own shop and technicians, the rebuilds cost about $100 in parts. Schubert says breakdowns are rare with an average of one cart out of service at any given time.

And when they get splattered with food or garbage or dirt. Supervisor Brent Jones says there’s a system for that too.

“A lot of the soiled carts, especially the trash carts as soon as they’re emptied do go through a cart wash system that’s much like an automated car wash that would pull your car through as it’s being washed. It washes and rinses it and sends it back to be staged to be used again.”

Along with Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, the OSU medical center currently boasts the largest robotic cart fleet of any civilian hospital in the country. And it’s about to get bigger. Tom Schubert says he plans to add another ten to twenty carts when the new cancer and research hospital is completed late next year.

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