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Sound of Silence

20 Mar 2014
Ken Huffenus

As soon as you walk into a quiet space, you know it.

What is noisy? This is a surprisingly difficult thing to quantify because it depends on so many different factors:

  • Are you in an enclosed area or outside?
  • Is there other background noise already?
  • How close to the noise are you?

The list continues well beyond this. On the other hand, there is less subjectivity to what is considered quiet. You recognize quiet in an instant.

Loud NoiseIn the world of automation, noise tends to be considered a necessary byproduct. A number of my colleagues have become very adept at describing the various noises made by stepper motors, leadscrews, cams, gearboxes, etc. Wheeeeeew. Wheeeeeeeeeeew. Wheeeeeeeeew, clack. This tends to be fine if you're talking about a single axis of motion, but imagine a hospital lab with hundreds or perhaps thousands of axes of motion all moving at the same time. Try having a quiet conversation in a large lab around the 8:00am sample rush - just about impossible.

Now the real question - is there a better way? Automation provides the throughput required to process the millions of samples taken each year in doctor's offices, clinics and hospitals. So how do you maintain the throughput (or even increase it) while dramatically reducing the audible noise? You eliminate the mechanics!

Direct drive technology has been around for a long time. Here at Kollmorgen, we've been manufacturing direct drive "torquers" for automated positioning of periscopes in submarines since the 1940's. Other industries, notably semiconductor manufacturing, have largely converted their automation axes to direct drive technologies due primarily to the precision and reliability required to manufacture and test ever smaller IC's in a 24/7/365 production environment. In medical and laboratory research applications, however, the automation axes tend to be largely indirect. A step motor with a gearbox drives a belt that turns a leadscrew which moves a pipette up and down. The hardware tends to be less expensive and the precision is "good enough."

But what about the lab technicians and doctors that have to work in the same space with these machines on a daily basis? OSHA's laboratory fact sheet cites some negative effects of noise as: hearing loss, tinnitus, stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, and chronic fatigue. What if there was a way to reduce the automation noise by 50% or even 90%? This video illustrates the difference in noise levels. Listen carefully. Which one would you rather work with for 8 hours? When designing a laboratory automation system, really consider the cost of good enough. What can save your company a few hundred now could cost you a few thousand in health care costs down the road. After all, silence is golden.

About the Author

Ken Huffenus

Ken Huffenus

Ken Huffenus is currently the Global Marketing Manager for the Kollmorgen Medical & Lab Automation business. Ken has more than 15 years of experience in the Automation industry in a variety of roles from direct sales to leadership positions within the strategic marketing group. He has spent the last four years leading development of the business plan and product technology roadmap for the Kollmorgen Medical initiative.

Ken graduated with a BSME from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and subsequently earned an MBA from Boston College during his tenure at Kollmorgen. He is active within the DxMA (Diagnostics Marketing Association ) as well as several other IVD and laboratory automation industry associations. Ken is located at our Boston, MA facility and can be reached at: Ken Huffenus

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