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For many of us, our introduction to laboratory automation revolves around the formerly popular Technicon SMA (Sequential Multiple Analyzer, circa 1969) and the SMAC (SMA + C), when a computer interface was added to the platform in 1974.

by Raymond L. Hecker

The Importance of Power Protection in Laboratory Automation

For many of us, our introduction to laboratory automation revolves around the formerly popular Technicon SMA (Sequential Multiple Analyzer, circa 1969) and the SMAC (SMA + C), when a computer interface was added to the platform in 1974. In the heady days of clinical chemistry laboratory management, when the lab was a profit center and the goal was publishing more reportable test results, these laboratory workhorses were not bounded by restrictive government reimbursement policy such as DRGs (diagnosis-related group) and the Health Insurance Prospective Payment System (HIPPS) codes—originally developed for Medicare. In these early days, automation in the laboratory was a collection of electromechanics and peristaltic pumps to move the samples, with spinning colorimetric light sources assisting in analysis; it was not too dissimilar to “pinball machine” logic and the game’s flashing lights with some computer and limited microprocessor control. As the Archie and Edith Bunker characters from All in the Family sang in 1971, “Those were the days!” and yes, they were. There was a plentiful supply of laboratory technologists, as the market’s growth appeared nearly unlimited. After all, the baby boomers would arrive on the scene to drive healthcare services to greater heights. The lab equipment of the day was relatively simple to operate, and the faster you could pipette and aliquot, the better.

Between 1967 and 1983, hospital reimbursement costs rose more than tenfold, from approximately $3 billion to $37 billion annually. With the government footing the bill for the majority of these costs, it was obvious that a change was in the wind to control reimbursements. HIPPS codes and related DRGs were voted into law in 1982. While Congress debated the benefits and requirements of controlling cost, forward-thinking chemistry system manufacturers began taking advantage of improved microprocessor technology and minicomputers such as the Digital Equipment PDP-11 to develop faster instrumentation systems with hospital interfaces. The dawn of laboratory automation had its roots in government regulation of the early 1980s as labs became cost centers and the way business had to be conducted was forever changed. The IBM personal computer was burgeoning, and the demand for faster, lower-cost reportable results was in full swing.

Laboratory automation had its development roots in the very late 1970s and progressed rapidly through the mid-1990s as industry interest groups were developed and became more popular. The most notable product of these groups was information interface and equipment standards, including the Laboratory Equipment Control Interface Specification published in 2000. While the rush to cost reduction was in play on an enterprisewide level and computer demand grew in the digital age, we also unknowingly suffered from a historic industry deregulation. The deregulation of the power industry put many in the laboratory business sector on a collision course with the digital age, technology improvements, cost center management, and an insufficient and degraded power delivery system. Our laboratories, literally wired for the 1970s and 1980s, could not possibly cope with the demands of the computer age and the strain they put on the laboratory’s electric power delivery. Enterprises suffered from high power demand and inadequate wiring. The business losses due to power quality issues soared.

The New York City blackouts of July 1977 and August 2003 (Figure 1) and the most recent San Diego Gas and Electric Co. blackout of September 2011 are reminders that our power delivery system in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico is fragile and strained. The 2003 New York City event cost over $1 billion in losses, with more than $250 million attributed to refrigerated product loss alone. Likewise, in Europe, the effects of power failures, switching transients, and harmonic distortion are even more devastating.

Figure 1: Photo of NYC 2003 blackout

But we were slow on the uptake of lessons we should have learned; fast-forward to today. We are on the verge of DNA sequencing becoming a common clinical chemistry technology, complete with a reimbursement mechanism. Molecular diagnostics have made great strides in translational oncology and the DNAsequencing industry supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ NIH- and NCI-funded research projects. Nextgeneration sequencing is in its third wave, with single molecule real-time sequencing technology looking like a very prominent and gamechanging technology. The promised $1,000 personal genome can occur only with very highthroughput testing (HTT) as a result of sophisticated laboratory automation—the most advanced high-speed robotics of the laboratory industry. With laboratory automation standards set, we now turn to keeping this technology up and running.

The U.S. power industry is a commodity product utility with a generally good track record of delivering on its promise of 99.99 percent reliability. Is this reliability good enough, and does it protect the laboratory? The “four 9s” reliability figure translates into an average 53 minutes of annual power loss. The problem with power reliability at this level is the switching transients that make up the majority of the accumulated loss. An annual average of 53 minutes translates to over 750,000 lightning strike events and incidents per year in an area the size of Germany. The most prevalent time for electrical disturbances is during the months from June through September. A computer can tolerate a loss of up to 20 ms without skipping a beat; however, the typical glitch that we can sense is approximately 300 ms in duration. That is a devastatingly long period of time and enough to send a computer to nevernever land. Coupled with switching transients is harmonic distortion, the real killer of sensitive electrical equipment like that used for HTT laboratory automation.

Laboratory automation is primarily high speed and utilizes very-high-acceleration robotic technology. Laboratory automation is much more than a computer; it is sophisticated multiaxial motor control, precision mechanisms, and AC and DC three-phase motors with laser sensors. A computer has only two moving parts: a disk drive and a fan, which use DC voltage. An automation system has AC and DC circuits, high-frequency switching motor control, and high in-rush currents, and it is not tolerant of an adulterated AC wave form (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Line Power Harmonic Distortion. Source: General Electric

While your laboratory may be protected by an emergency generator and a central UPS, the primary issue with a central system is that it cannot react to short-duration transients that do not result in a loss of power of sufficient duration and magnitude to set an automatic transfer switch in motion to start a generator. A central system is also a single point of failure. Likewise, short-term transients bypass most central systems, which are optimized to meet green energy mandates and provide power for long-term outages, usually exceeding one minute or longer. While the central system is coming up to speed to protect all the load it is designed to carry, your automation system is now off to never-never land again.

So how can you protect your laboratory automation?

The answer is simple and straightforward:

  • If your automation looks like a computer and uses power like a computer, then protect it with a high-grade computer UPS.
  • If your automation looks and acts like an advanced automated instrumentation system, protect it with a specific and purpose-built instrumentation power protection system (IPPS) that is designed to protect the dynamic loads of instrumentation and high-throughput automation.

The decision to add advanced automation to your laboratory was for long-term consistent production and cost reduction. This choice indicated a decision to reduce bench staff, improve performance, provide timely reportable results with higher accuracy and high specificity, and drive cost down.

The addition of smart monitoring and reporting coupled with a laboratory automation system is another wise choice.

A point-of-use IPPS with smart monitoring and reporting technology provides the ultimate power protection for the high-throughput automated laboratory. Coupled with an emergency generator for a nearly unlimited power resource, the IPPS corrects the generator’s power to provide pristine power delivery to your automated equipment. Reliable power delivery to your instrumentation and automation allows your laboratory to fulfill its customer promise of delivering lowcost reportable results in a timely manner. Your lab’s reputation is saved, your customers and stakeholders are happy, and you have more time to plan and operate your laboratory business as you intended.