Saturday, April 4, 2015

hospital maintenance and flying coke bottles

It’s lunchtime and across the hospital foyer doctors and nurses are hurrying to eat, patients are wandering around in back-less gowns gripping IV poles and white-coated staff are wielding trolleys of biological samples. I find Cees where he said he would meet in the central hall and introduce myself. Cees is a Dutch engineer with over 30 years of experience working with pneumatic tubes (currently at Swisslog). He has offered to give me a tour of the hospital’s pneumatic tube system, which he is currently working on. I have to thank Ilona from Swisslog for setting this meeting up, a connection made after we started corresponding about casino systems.

Cees is intrigued as to why I am blogging about pneumatic tubes and we soon enter into an animated discussion, as we make our way down a hospital corridor, of their many fascinations. He tells me that the system has now been closed at the hospital for almost two weeks while they have been doing some checks and updating the system (replacing circuitory boards, changing diverters, adding further maintenance stations and software updates). As a result the hospital has had to hire eight people during the day, five in the evening and four at night to transport blood and other tissues around the hospital. At a substantial cost. Pneumatic tubes it seems, saves this hospital a lot of money when they are in use.
Soon we veer off the busy corridors and stairwells into the loud hum of the service room on the 4th floor (close to the laboratory on the 5th). Whoosh, a capsule whizzes by overhead. We head over to the pneumatic tube system blowers, which wheeze and spin. A few more capsules arrive and are sent out again. 1200 – 1400 a day Cees tells me, when the system is fully operational, which is a lot for a relatively small system. We meet some other members of the repair team and together we head off to the cafeteria where we drink Coca Colas with our names on them and eat sandwiches. The team once worked together for Coca Cola, designing a system which would deliver drinks to customers at the front of stores by a tube (straight from the sky, Gods Must be Crazy style). The system was never rolled out on a large scale but a proto-type was installed in Copenhagen airport. You can watch the video of them installing the system here.

Over lunch we talk about how different hospitals use pneumatic tube systems differently. In some places there are few repairs needed, in others many. Mostly related to human error. They laugh over the story of a nursing student who was told to send some documents by pneumatic tube and put them straight into the system, without a capsule. Breakdowns can happen at any time, the engineers are on call. Their job is also to do preventive maintenance, which is why they are in the hospital. They are using a well-fitted-out capsule which tests g-forces, speed and shake, all factors which might disrupt the samples being carried. This special capsule replaces the samples of blood which were previously used to test the system, a problematic practice as Cees pointed out: not only expensive but ethically complicated considering the circumstances of donation.
After lunch we head back to the service room to see how the checks are going. There is a little storeroom out the back, stacked with capsules and sending and receiving stations. Cees shows me how they are updating the circuit boards, which now need to store a lot more information as tracking becomes more widely used. Everything he says needs to be traced, just in case there is “an incident”: not only where the capsule is but also what is in the capsule and who is sending it too. Barcodes are crucial in the tracing and one of the ways in which pneumatic tube systems are changing.

We talk for a while longer and Cees tells me a wonderful story about how engineers use the skill of listening to sound (one of my current research projects), what he called a “professional madness” in his field. If a capsule gets stuck Cees says, you can hear a particular sound, a sisssssss and you know where the blockage is. He had a colleague with a particularly “good ear”. During his visits to hospitals he would have his head cocked, listening for abnormalities in the system. The hospital staff wondered if he had escaped from the psychiatric unit. Things have changed now and the systems are more insulated, hidden away out of earshot.
Our tour is at an end and once again I am amazed and how this system continually adapts in each location and time period. Cees comments that he thought the industry might be finished with the invention of the fax machine, but here they still are. Pneumatic tube systems continually adjust to the market, changing it in the process. The need for this technology does not seem to be abating. Most new hospitals of a certain size have pneumatic tube systems installed. These systems need continual maintenance and repair, all happening in the service rooms and behind the walls of busy hospitals, the only sign of these systems in place being during moments of breakdown or stoppage, when the white-coated casual staff appear, wielding their rumbling trolleys with samples through the corridors.

Image my own.

1 comment:

  1. great post and thanks for the link to the you tube of the installation etc!