There will be blood

The NHS’s Filton blood centre is using a host of automation techniques to aid the efficiency of blood processing

If you had to draw up a list of organisations most likely to employ cutting-edge levels of automation, it’s unlikely that the NHS would feature anywhere near the top. But its new blood centre in Filton, Bristol, boasts levels of technology and automation more commonly associated with high-volume car production.

The largest of its kind in the world, the £60m centre, which began operating last summer, can supply up to 600,000 units of blood every year to 14 million patients throughout the Midlands and the South West. Bristling with technology for blood filtration and storage, one of the key requirements for the plant — which has been designed to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week — is high availability and total reliability.

Before blood from donations can be delivered to the hospitals, however, it has to undergo several stages of processing. One of these involves leaving the bags of blood suspended from a bar for several hours under controlled conditions to aid filtration.

Once this stage of the process is complete, the bags are ready for sealing, which is carried out manually. To enable the work to be performed at a convenient height for operators, the bars from which the blood bags are suspended are raised by around 1.5m. These bars weigh around 15kg when fully loaded.

The blood centre tasked design engineers from Devon based mechanical-handling systems specialist Smart Manufacturing with devising a system to perform this lifting function.

The brief included reliable operation for long periods, with minimum maintenance, plus strict standards for hygiene. The team based its solution on the OSP-E BHD series of electric linear drives from Parker Origa.

’We decided to look at Parker Origa products for this application after receiving a strong recommendation from a satisfied user,’ said Kevin Bloomfield, Smart Manufacturing’s design engineer for the project. ’It didn’t take us long to see the benefits offered by the BHD range. In particular, the products in the range feature robust construction and they are clearly designed to offer a long working life without the need for regular maintenance. Also, they made it easy for us to meet the end user’s requirements for hygiene, as they are virtually free from dirt traps.’

BHD high-capacity linear actuation systems feature a toothed-belt drive and have integrated guides to optimise load-carrying capacity. The systems are available with either re-circulating ball-bearing guides or roller guides, with the former selected for this application.

Further benefits of the BHD systems are their compact design, which simplifies installation even where space is limited, and the availability of an extensive range of connection elements, accessories and mountings, which makes them exceptionally easy to integrate. Parker Origa optionally offers BHD linear-drive systems complete with motors and control systems but in this instance, Smart Manufacturing decided to use its own motor and controls so as to maintain uniformity with the rest of the installation. ’As we had anticipated, the BHD drive system proved very easy to install and set up,’ added Bloomfield.

’It operated exactly as we wanted right from the outset.’

The lift system for blood bags has now been in use for almost a year and it has proved to be completely reliable. ’There hasn’t been a single problem with it, which is exactly what is needed in this blood-processing application,’ Bloomfield said.

BHD electrically operated linear drives with integrated guides, as used at Filton blood centre, are one of many options in Parker Origa’s range of linear-motion solutions. Other options include rodless pneumatic drives that are suited to reciprocating applications, and electric screw drives that combine high force capability with accurate path and position control.

Other cutting-edge technologies deployed at the blood centre include a series of fully automated PK7300 blood-grouping analysers developed by Olympus. Able to cope with the extremely high throughput of blood, these devices can send blood-grouping results via a direct interface to the blood centre’s computer system, so expediting subsequent blood-bag labelling. The PK7300 can also be used for additional blood phenotyping purposes.

Josie Jackson, regional testing manager at Filton, said: ’We test approximately 2,500 samples per day using our three PK7300 analysers; 75 per cent of these must be undertaken by 2pm to ensure that we can efficiently label and release processed blood bags for transfusion. This speed to blood-group results delivery is particularly crucial for blood products with a shorter shelf life, such as platelets.’

Design essentials

The key facts to take away from this article

» Filton blood centre can process 600,000 units of blood a year
» Three Olympus PK7300 analysers test 2,500 blood samples a day at Filton
» BHD high-capacity linear actuation systems raise bars holding blood bags to a height of 1.5m
» When fully loaded, these bars weigh 15kg

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