Robotic transporters roll into Spectrum hospitals

Units used for moving linens, meals and trash also reduce potential of COVID-19 exposure.
TUG robots logged more than 1,500 miles at Spectrum facilities during the first eight months of this year. Courtesy Spectrum Health

Spectrum Health significantly expanded its fleet of service robots since introducing the first two to Butterworth and Blodgett hospitals in 2007.

The hospital system now has a total fleet of 50 TUG robots after introducing 28 to the Spectrum Health Medical Center in downtown Grand Rapids over the summer. Butterworth Hospital, the largest campus, still has the most TUGs at 32.

The push for more TUGs patrolling the hallways was a fortuitous coincidence in the middle of a global pandemic, said Spectrum Senior VP for System Supply Chain Kurt Knoth.

“When you see a robot coming down a hallway, it’s not as jarring as having to pass a person,” Knoth said.

Spectrum Health originally embraced the possibility of robotic care units back in 2007 to prevent staff injuries, Knoth said. During a process improvement team event, Spectrum started looking at ways to prevent workers from being hurt while pushing 500-pound linen carts.

Additionally, some hallways at the Butterworth campus have steep angles, adding to the risk of injury.

“We started looking at the facilities’ build requirements, and it would cost $2.5 million to make what I thought was a simple change,” Knoth said.

Spectrum then pivoted to researching the possibility of having TUGs do the heavy lifting, noting Cleveland Clinic in Ohio had been utilizing TUGs for about 10 years.

The hospital system then looked at other departments besides linens, like nutrition, trash removal and other items that needed to be transported.

The TUGs can handle loads up to 1,000 pounds and can easily maneuver hospital hallways, ramps and obstacles, allowing employees to do less of the muscle work and spend more time supporting patient care. Each robot can work for 18 hours on a four-hour charge.

“At the end of the day, they are labor saving, though that’s not the original reason we did it, but if we look at how hard it is to hire people today, it’s almost impossible to get people and keep them,” Knoth said.

Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, Spectrum had just outfitted all departments at its Fuller Campus and Blodgett Hospital with TUGs. The medical center downtown recently got TUGs for its nutrition team, and more departments will be phased in over time, Knoth said.

Between January and August, Spectrum’s TUG robots traveled more than 1,580 miles total, roughly the distance between Grand Rapids and Phoenix, Arizona. The robots made food runs totaling 914 miles carrying 193,746 meals; 378 miles carrying 726 tons of linens; 201 miles carrying 66 tons of trash; and 88 miles of medical supply runs.

TUGs are semi-autonomous, meaning they have their own navigation capability. The robots are synced to the hospital’s WiFi system, so staff can easily program all the routes, Knoth said.

The TUGs also were given names like “R2-D2” and “Doug the TUG” by service line teams, have employee badges and, for the most part, travel employee-only routes and never enter patient rooms.

“We make it a little fun for the staff, and a lot of the patients I interacted with like it, too,” Knoth said.

TUG robot systems are produced by Aethon Inc. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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