'Let me pipette that for you'—ABB to design robotic lab helper

The Swiss-based robotics group ABB opened its first global healthcare research hub in the U.S. and unveiled a new concept robot that could assist laboratory staff with their day-to-day tasks.

The YuMi robot is designed to help complete the time-consuming and mundane work found around the hospital lab: such as loading and unloading centrifuges, pipetting, sorting test tubes or preparing medicines.

Equipped with two articulating arms and sensors that will allow it to navigate around lab desks and its human co-workers, the robot could also be used to dispense medicines or transport them throughout a hospital—as well as deliver bed linens and perform other logistical tasks, according to the company.

The goal, of course, is to free up highly skilled lab employees and clinicians for other objectives. ABB thinks it can complete these repetitive tasks up to 50% faster than people working manually, while also being able to work 24 hours a day.

ABB's YuMi robot concept. (Image: ABB)

“The healthcare sector is undergoing significant transformation as the diagnosis and treatment of disease advances, while coping with an aging population, increasing costs and a growing worldwide shortage of medical staff,” Sami Atiya, president of ABB’s robotics and discrete automation business, said in a statement.

Previously, ABB’s robotics work has focused on bringing automation to factories, assembly and manufacturing across a range of industries. ABB’s new research hub—representing its first foray into healthcare—will be located at the Texas Medical Center in Houston, within the campus’ Innovation Institute.

The company estimates that the number of non-surgical medical robots may reach 60,000 internationally by 2025, possibly quadrupling the 15,000 or so accounted for in 2018.

“Together with ABB we envisioned a whole new world that we could use robotics as the core for our innovation—in our labs, in the way that our hospitals work, and the way that we refine processes in healthcare,” said Bill McKeon, president and CEO of Texas Medical Center, which sees about 10 million patients per year.

“Healthcare is changing dramatically,” McKeon said in an ABB video. “We have shortages of people, we have shortages of talent—and ABB robotics is bringing that technology and putting it right at the center of all the innovation at the medical center.”