Robots developed by a New Zealand tech firm have joined the country's fight against Covid-19.
The super-smart robots have been built to take the lids on and off Covid samples for the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) after human staff were at risk from getting repetitive strain injuries (RSI) doing the mundane, painstaking yet important tasks.
As the testing started to ramp up during the pandemic, CDHB was processing thousands of samples through its labs.
Auckland DHBs were also sending overflow samples to try to speed up the process.
Staff were having to take the small lids off each test tube and then put them back on.
It was feared the staff were at risk from RSI and so Canterbury Health Labs (CHL) started scouting for solutions.
"This [was] particularly important when you consider the large numbers of samples they [were] processing each day as part of the Covid-19 response," said Kirsten Beynon, general manager of CDHB pathology and laboratories.
"Staff safety and wellbeing is paramount to the Canterbury DHB and we do everything we can do to ensure this."
But they quickly discovered there were no ready-made systems to do the job, either in New Zealand or overseas.
CHL partnered with the local tech company to come up with an automated decapping/capping solution – and quickly.
"We sat down and thought 'we can come up with something using robots to help with this'," said Christchurch-based robotic automation company Design Energy business development director Paul Claridge.
The team started working frantically and in the second lockdown this year worked continuously on the project to get it finished as quickly as possible.
After 12 weeks, the robot system was built.
And last month, RoboLab was installed at Christchurch Hospital.
The two robots work together with their mechanical arms to unscrew sample tube caps ready for processing and then replace with a new cap when processing is completed.
They can process batches of nearly 200 samples at a time, which are then taken for analysis.
"It has made a huge difference as it enables standard workflow and most importantly has also contributed to our staff's wellbeing by reducing the chance of a repetitive strain and fatigue," Beynon said.
"All in all, this has been an amazing result for our team and we were really pleased to be able to work with a local company to make it happen."
Lab staff are no longer at risk from RSI and are now freed up to do other tasks.
Claridge says the robots are also more accurate and faster.
"It just doesn't make mistakes," he said.
"They don't get Covid, they don't take tea breaks, they don't talk to their mates about their weekend.
"Some robots are way faster than humans for various things, some are as fast as your fastest person but your fastest person doesn't continuously work – they go to the loo, talk to their mates, get sick, go on leave. So with robots, even if they go just as fast as your fastest person, you get about a 30 per cent lift anyway."
Claridge wouldn't reveal how much the robots are worth, citing commercial sensitivities.
But he said RoboLab could be rolled out to other DHBs across New Zealand, or to health authorities overseas.
"This is a great example of a Kiwi company nutting it out and delivering a solution, quickly."