Robots, robots everywhere!

Picking up on my presentation at IDSc Conference in Blackpool, I wanted to expand on the thought of introducing robotics and automation into the decontamination environment. And at the beginning, I need to stress out that I am not talking about a robot to automate a single task but about an entire robotised infrastructure that will automate the whole  decontamination environment.

Why robots?

When we look at the entire decontamination process, it becomes apparent that it is a collection of repetitive, low complexity tasks that are currently executed by a combination of humans labour and machines. Specific processes like cleaning, disinfection and sterilisation have been already automated. However, each of these processes takes place in separate pieces of equipment (washers, washer disinfectors or sterilisers) with humans managing the flow of instruments through them. Humans are also involved in preparing the load for the subsequent processes – typically pre-cleaning or pre-conditioning as well as manual cleaning of individual instruments before automated processing in a washer and after that preparing sets for sterilisation. When you look from the perspective of the tasks, these are repetitive activities requiring high level of attention to detail and high level of quality control. Moreover, some of these activities carry a significant burden of risk to operators who are being exposed to high levels of contamination on instruments and deal with high concentrations of chemicals.

When it comes to quality control over manual processes, it is not difficult to imagine that the biggest problem is not the complexity of the task itself but the fact it needs to be consistently repeated over time with the same result. We then need to combine this with the efficiency of the entire process that puts pressure on a fast turnaround and the cost of running and managing such a system.

Manual, repetitive tasks are often hard to perform with consistency under pressure – especially when high risk factor is considered. I believe we are getting close to the threshold where further improvements in the system will start amplifying the cost beyond the viability of the solution. I also believe that the way forward is to employ technology to fully automate tasks and that can be achieved by a robotised ecosystem.

Robots have the capacity to deliver repeatability under tight quality control because monitoring, diagnostics and reporting are by design included in the overall process. They are not simply included as additional elements but work as integral parts of the control system. Robotic technologies are being developed for other disciplines of science (pharmaceuticals, laboratories, etc.) and robots are already a big part of our reality. I have no doubt that we will see more automation in decontamination in the coming years.

This technology has the potential of changing the dimensions of the proverbial box and making us “think different”. It is happening anyway, it’s no longer a question of “if” but “when”, therefore I think we may as well lead the change.

Holistic approach – strength of multiple perspectives

Decontamination units operate within a much wider universe with many stakeholders. Until now, different technologies and methodologies have been developed in isolation from each other, so the biggest challenge to start with will be to bring all the stakeholders together and create a robotics framework so decontamination technologies are developed together with surgical instruments, IT systems, logistics and all other stakeholders that intersect the circular path of the reprocessing cycle. This concept is bigger than any single company or supplier and as such will require collaboration reaching beyond decontamination.

I see robotic framework as a concept that brings robotics into decontamination to enable us to take the full advantage of possibilities robots bring. It is not simply about superseding people with robots. When you consider logistics or storage it becomes clear that systems and solutions have been designed for people to manually move instrumentation around. Restrictions in height, weight, the way instruments are loaded and unloaded from equipment was designed with human physiology in mind. These restrictions do not necessarily apply to robots in the same way, therefore we can start thinking outside the box about the new decontamination environment. Actually, this technology has the potential of changing the dimensions of the proverbial box and making us “think different”.

I believe we should welcome robots in decontamination as they create opportunities we have never known existed. The sooner we adopt this way of thinking, the sooner we, as lead-users, will be able to shape the development path of this technology and make it play to our strengths.

It is happening anyway, it’s no longer a question of “if” but “when”, therefore I think we may as well lead the change.

About the Author

Pawel de Sternberg Stojalowski

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Pawel de Sternberg Stojalowski MBA, MSc, BSc is a research and development specialist focusing on innovation within decontamination sciences. He’s been involved in R&D since 2007, designing equipment, processes and methodologies for cleaning, disinfection and sterilisation of surgical instruments as well as medical and laboratory equipment.