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Pneumatic Tube Communication In Hospitals 350

Posted by kdawson
from the foot-long-packets dept.
blee37 sends along a writeup from the School of Medicine at Stanford University on their pneumatic tube delivery system, used for sending atoms not bits. Such systems are in use in hospitals nationwide; the 19th-century technology is enhancd by recent refinements in pneumatic braking. "Every day, 7,000 times a day, Stanford Hospital staff turn to pneumatic tubes, cutting-edge technology in the 19th century, for a transport network that the Internet and all the latest Silicon Valley wizardry can't match: A tubular system to transport a lab sample across the medical center in the blink of an eye."
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Pneumatic Tube Communication In Hospitals

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  • by Gothmolly (148874) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @05:32PM (#30717206)

    So the point of this article is that physical tasks, like plumbing or carrying infected blood, can't be done electronically ?!?!

    • by sopssa (1498795) *

      The reason why they do this is NOT about cost cutting.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Z00L00K (682162)

        Actually - it is. Imagine the amount of time and work needed to deliver all those small items like tissue samples, paper documents and X-rays around the hospital by hand.

        Sometimes time is of an issue, and a pneumatic tube is a simple and beautiful solution to a problem.

        Anyway - that delivery system is used in many other places than hospitals too. Like in supermarkets where the tellers can send excess cash to the vault without leaving their station.

        Even heavy industry uses it for transport of samples from th

    • by AliasMarlowe (1042386) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @05:42PM (#30717292) Journal
      The ultra-modern pharmacy in the local town also uses pneumatic delivery for prescription drugs. You present your prescription at the counter, and the attendant checks it, then keys in the appropriate codes on the terminal. The pills/potion/whatever arrives via pneumatic tube while the instructions & labels are being printed. This is faster then the previous method where the same attendant would have to walk off and fetch the prescription materials.

      Some banks also use pneumatic conveyance to send currency between the counters and the vault.
    • by sznupi (719324)

      It would be interesting to see it the other way around though - pneumatic computation.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Talk to these guys [invensys.com].

        You may find the density a little lacking; but I suspect that they don't even notice EMP.

        More broadly, a lot of the early analog computers were hydraulic(presumably this was easier than pneumatic, since water is more or less incompressible under standard conditions); but there would be nothing stopping the suitably enthusiastic individual from building pneumatic analog computers. Or, for that matter, digital ones. The cool kids in microfluidics have done some poking at the idea. pne [rsc.org]
      • by itsthebin (725864) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @08:03PM (#30718522) Homepage
        Pneumatic Computation was use in early control rooms , with fully analog computation. Adders , Sumers , Square Root Extractors , PID controllers , switches.
        3 - 15 psi to represent 0 - 100 %

        when I did my Industrial Instrumentation Apprenticeship , pneumatics was a large part , and in some explosive enviroments it is still a preferred way to go.
    • by Discordantus (654486) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:54PM (#30717924)
      The point of this article is that pneumatic tube networks are frelling cool, and they're old tech. To many persons of geeky persuasion (including me), this type of thing is fascinating.
    • So the point of this article is that physical tasks, like plumbing or carrying infected blood, can't be done electronically ?!?!

      RTFA, dude. By using adding high-tech sensors and computer controlled routing to the pneumatic tubing system, they are shipping things around way faster than people could carry them ... things that we could NOT ship in the 1980s.

      Being able to have a straight tube delivering bags of blood between OR and blood bank is an amazing time saver for staff.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 10, 2010 @05:36PM (#30717236)

    The bandwidth sucks.

    • i'm fairly sure it doesn't: it would most probaby be possible to feed 3.5" or at least 2.5" HDs down these tube. Every few seconds.

      the latency certainly, though.

    • by igny (716218)
      The bandwidth sucks.

      And the more it sucks the better it is.
    • On the contrary, it blows.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DrBuzzo (913503)
      The bandwidth sucks? Well lets have a face-off. You choose the network hardware of whatever type you want, be it gigabit ethernet, fiber or whatever, and I'll send several pneumatic canisters stuffed to the brim with 32 gigabyte MicroSD cards. We'll see who can transfer the most data from one side of the hospital to the other in five minutes.

      "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway." - Andrew Tanenbaum
  • by Spazmania (174582) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @05:40PM (#30717282) Homepage

    James-Bond those urine samples.

  • Ding Ding (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TubeSteak (669689) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @05:42PM (#30717296) Journal

    To help alert employees to the arrival of containers, the system has more than three dozen different combinations of chiming tones.

    I wonder which engineer thought that would be a good idea.

    • by mikael (484)

      Probably the engineer who played in a rock band in his/her spare time and realized that a one bad note in a tune would be more discernible to somebody working late shift, than something like "The appendectomy/tonsillectomy/lumpectomy biopsy results have just arrived." . Those tunes would probably be as memorable to staff as the chord played in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

    • Re:Ding Ding (Score:5, Informative)

      by Vegeta99 (219501) <rjlynnNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Sunday January 10, 2010 @07:00PM (#30717986)

      When I was in high school, I quite stereotypically worked at McDonald's. To this day, whenever I eat there, I can tell you EXACTLY what is happening in the kitchen. Someone really paid attention to make sure no function requiring human attention in that kitchen had the same sound.

      Sometimes, if some jerkoff called off and you were stuck back in the kitchen alone, it was MADDENING. You absolutely are more aware of a loud, high pitched beep than a voice telling you to do something

    • by tomhath (637240)
      I doubt there's a problem with that many combinations. It's probably a sequence of three or four chimes, each of which has a small set of ringtones. E.g. Tissue/Operating Room/Immediate or Blood/Outpatient/Routine. It would be easy to remember the code.
    • by The Wild Norseman (1404891) <tw.norseman @ g m a i l . c om> on Sunday January 10, 2010 @09:15PM (#30718934)

      To help alert employees to the arrival of containers, the system has more than three dozen different combinations of chiming tones.

      bing bing bong bong
      bing bing bong bong
      "Well, Theresa, aren't you going to get that?"
      "Hell no! That's Marty from accounting! He's been trying to contact me ever since he thought I was coming on to him at the Christmas party. As if!"
      "No, that's not Marty. Marty is bing bing bing bong and not bing bing bong bong. That's Bill in IT."
      "Are you sure? I thought Bill's was bing bong bong bing."
      "Nope. You might be confusing that with Jerry which is bong bing bong bingybong."
      "Okay, but only if you're sure."

  • by 8127972 (73495) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @05:48PM (#30717366)

    ... Sen. Ted Stevens.

  • by Max Romantschuk (132276) <max@romantschuk.fi> on Sunday January 10, 2010 @05:52PM (#30717406) Homepage

    When the register has too much cash or needs change they just tube it over. There's also at least one pharmacy which has people processing prescriptions at terminals, and storage below from where the drugs are tubed over. If it works, don't fix it I say.

    Oh, and here = Helsinki, Finland.

    • by hduff (570443)

      If it works, don't fix it I say.

      Oh, and here = Helsinki, Finland.

      Fix it until it breaks.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by zlogic (892404)

      But what if someone hacks the system, do something like a man-in-the-middle attack and starts intercepting money transactions?

    • by mikael (484) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:07PM (#30717564)

      Nearly all the department stores did that back in the 1950's/1960's . There were no electronic cash registers, and checkout staff weren't allowed to handle money. So the customer would place their payment along with a receipt signed by the checkout clerk into a capsule. This would be sent upstairs to be processed by an accountant who would send the change back down to the checkout clerk. Just like in the movie "Brazil".

    • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:15PM (#30717620) Homepage Journal

      Yeah they use them here in Melbourne, Australia. Makes be wonder if you could knock one up with bits from the hardware store. The pipes are easy 90mm stormwater and 100mm sewage are both available. If we go with the cheap 90mm pipe then 70mm pipe could be used for a capsule. Sealing the outside and making it reliable might be a problem. You could experiment with O rings (not for use in cold weather!) with manual lubrication using sump oil.

      You would need a low pressure electric pump. Should be a few available off the shelf. Maybe I could rework my front letterbox. Saves one trip out of the house every day.

      • by I_am_Jack (1116205) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:56PM (#30717948)
        Actually, the blower from a vacuum cleaner at a car wash would be more than enough to power a 100mm dia. (4" in the US, which is a standard tube size here for pneumatic tube systems) point-to-point line, and you could move the carrier several hundred meters with a payload up up to a half kilo. You could use ABS sewage line. The problem is how you would create bends and offsets. The smallest radius for a standard size carrier in a 100mm dia. tube is 60cm. Sealing the system is really not much of an issue. And if you use a piece of 70mm pipe, you'd need to wrap the outside with the fuzzy velcro strips at equadistant points to make your seal in order to allow the pressure/vacuum to propel the carrier. I used to sell the big systems to hospitals for a living.
      • by Hadlock (143607)

        I think the biggest problem would be finding a way to reliably make those large-radius bends. Most buildings that have pneumatic systems installed usually have the "kinks" (pun intended) that have to be worked out by the installer before you end up with a reliable system.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by MichaelSmith (789609)

          Hmmm maybe you could send spherical packages down the tube (literally, balls) and use normal pipe junctions. Then you could control air movement for routing. I can't think of a good application with such inconvenient shapes but how about a fast food joint....

          Order at your table with a cheap touch screen. Shove cash into a ball, your change comes back the same way, or pay by CC though the UI. Everything on the menu fits into a ball. Used balls go back through a dedicated garbage tube which goes strai

    • in australia coles and woolworths as well as target and big w, etc. all use pneumatic tubs for cash.
    • by fm6 (162816)

      Sure, if you have a lot of small objects (pills, cash, whatever), pneumatic tubes are great. But Stanford Hospital is using them to manage data.

      Handwritten medical words add to costs, mistakes (as in people dying), and miscommunication. That's why the U.S. needs an electronic medical record system. I believe Finland already has one.

      Stanford has just added a little speed to an obsolete system. Rather sad for a school that has played such a big role in the development of information technology.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by donatzsky (91033)

        Did you actually RTFA? Sure, they send documents (might as well when they have the system), but what they're raving about in TFA is that they can send tissue samples and other bits and pieces of their patients.

  • I look forward to the day when humans can be transported through these tubes as in Futurama.

  • Why is this news? Seriously, old technology lives on if it's useful. Even sometimes if it's not.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by value_added (719364)

      Why is this news? Seriously, old technology lives on if it's useful. Even sometimes if it's not.

      I think the newsworthiness of this is that it offers evidence of a technological "plus ca change ..." Put another way, instead of looking like Star Trek or a Spielberg movie, the future will more likely resemble what we see in Brazil [wikipedia.org].

  • by Bender_ (179208) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:06PM (#30717548) Journal

    Both Berlin and Paris had a networks with a total length of more than 400km.

    obvious link [wikipedia.org]

  • Fluff piece, sorta (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:16PM (#30717632)

    I found the article mildly interesting but the lack of details disappointing. They only mention things like switching points and waiting areas in passing. It would've been a great article if they'd talked about the specific tech - I know it's old tech, but most of us have had little to no exposure to it (I've been to banks that use it at their drive-through windows... that's about it). For example: there are switches; is there any sort of prioritization protocol, or are the switches simply for collision prevention?

  • by AndyGasman (695277) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:27PM (#30717706) Homepage Journal
    They are pretty common in the UK, in all sort of industries.

    Tesco supermarket uses them in some stores for moving cash to tills, and they are widely used in Hospitals.

    There is one great, if slightly lengthy story that a friend tells, from when she was working in a hospital in Western Scotland a few years ago, I'll try to recount it best as I can.

    A patient who has Hepatitis and Epilepsy is admitted to the hospital, he had a fit, and his Dog bit his ear off while he was fitting. So he came to hospital with his ear in his pocket. He was treated in A&E (UK ER) and sent up to the surgical department. His Ear though was wrapped up and put in a tube, however before the doctor could tap in the destination, the pod whizzed off. The hepatitis positive ear was not found for several days (is this just a bit error rate?), as it was quiet a big hospital with a lot of tubes. It could have been worse, as the ear was not intended to be sown back on, but just photographed and incinerated. The doctor who put the ear in the pod was known as Stupid Dave before the incident, but I'm sure this didn't help him shake of the moniker. The worst thing is, most people just ask what happened to the dog.

    You don't get that with TCP/IP
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 10, 2010 @06:38PM (#30717808)
    at the hospital at which I worked, you could select the origin station as the destination, and the tube system would dutifully take the carrier all the way around and back. so you could send yourself something, and receive it a few minutes later. I loved sending stuff to myself in the (near) future.
  • Do you suppose they got the idea from the drive-through prescription lane at Walgreen's?

    rj

  • A sample was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday. I got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things.

  • by b4upoo (166390) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @07:23PM (#30718226)

    Place a stack of DVDs in a pneumatic device and you can pump data faster than on any type of existing system of delivery.

  • by slim (1652)

    The Red Lion in Hunningham, Warwickshire, uses pneumatic tubes to shuttle food orders to the kitchen (the order, not the food). The tubes are transparent and take a slightly convoluted route, so it's fun to watch.

    What you wouldn't expect from that, is that it's a reasonably traditional country pub in most respects...

  • If it works, why replace it?

  • Anonymous Coward (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 10, 2010 @07:47PM (#30718402)

    I used such tubes all day, every day, for several years, doing Neutron Activation Analysis. The samples were loaded three per tube, known as rabbits. They went into the slot, closed and blew down the outside wall of the building, underground, and then up into the core of our TRIGA reactor. There they got neutrons of various energies for anywhere from 0.05 to 2-3 seconds, and then they blasted back to me. Behind the shields I removed the samples and placed them at the gamma detectors--moving very fast. Counting gammas took anywhere from seconds to days, depending upon type and elements.

    We proved the existence of the Northern Hemisphere ozone depletion with 800 samples, and several of my graduates got PhDs. Another project showed trade routes extant through northern Italy at the construction of the Colliseum.

    Once in a while a rabbit would get stuck. A particularly hot one did, right at the corner of my lab. We timed that test so no one else was in the building, and it got so hot it wouldn't come back past the tube joint. If I hadn't known just where the 36" wrench was, the building could have been badly contaminated, and would've shut down, as in national news. I got it out without too much exposure, and was offered the job as building manager later.

    Another time a sample exploded while removing it from a rabbit, showering my nose with hot dust. I still get stray hairs growing there...

  • by harlows_monkeys (106428) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @08:08PM (#30718550) Homepage

    I've occasionally thought it would be interesting to use this kind of technology for home plumbing. For example, when you turn on your sink and ask for hot water, instead of having a continuous flow in a pipe from the hot water heater to the sink (which wastes a lot of energy), why not use a pneumatic tube system to deliver a packet of hot water to the sink?

    Note that the same tubes could be used for delivering hot water an cold water, and taking away waste water? (You'd have separate containers, of course, for fresh water and waste water).

    You could do cool things with a pneumatic packet-switched water network. For instance, it would be easy to add a storage tank and route shower waster water to the tank, and then from there to the toilets for flushing.

    And I bet with some clever design, you could make it so the pneumatic tube system could double as a centralized vacuum system for house cleaning.

    • by scottv67 (731709) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @08:58PM (#30718828)
      > I've occasionally thought it would be interesting to use this kind of technology for home plumbing. For example, when you turn on your sink and ask for hot water, instead of having a continuous flow in a pipe from the hot water heater to the sink (which wastes a lot of energy), why not use a pneumatic tube system to deliver a packet of hot water to the sink?

      Are you fucking high?

      >Note that the same tubes could be used for delivering hot water an cold water, and taking away waste water? (You'd have separate containers, of course, for fresh water and waste water).

      Are you fucking high?

      >You could do cool things with a pneumatic packet-switched water network. For instance, it would be easy to add a storage tank and route shower waster water to the tank, and then from there to the toilets for flushing.

      Are you fucking high?

      >And I bet with some clever design, you could make it so the pneumatic tube system could double as a centralized vacuum system for house cleaning.

      Seriously, are you fucking high?
    • by mr_matticus (928346) on Sunday January 10, 2010 @08:58PM (#30718830)

      Why not? Possibly because of the following:

      1) The energy required to transport "packets" of hot water is many, many times greater than the losses through the hot water pipes.

      2) The cost of building such a system would exceed any logical benefit; adding a large-diameter pipe system would occupy considerable space and would require some (presumably mechanized) system for sorting, draining, and filling the containers (as well as isolating waste water containers from the others) in a space-consuming "sorting room".

      3) Each shower, sink, and drain in the building would require a large accumulation tank, since it would take multiple "packets" to flush a toilet, and storing enough hot water for even a brief shower would require many, many trips through the system. Any drain reservoir that filled faster than the system could empty it would back up into the sink/toilet/bathtub. The largest conceivable container to fit into a typical building could hold about a gallon of water and would be twice the size of the system used at banks--it certainly wouldn't fit inside a standard wall and would require a special breakout conduit.

      4) For home use, building a sufficiently complex system would simply be impossible--all water flow would stop while your "packets" were en route to other destinations. There is no conceivable way to build bypass structures and waiting areas sufficient to allow multiple taps to work simultaneously at an acceptable refill rate.

      5) Given the necessary locations for most of the accumulation tanks, you would need active pumps to run most faucets--the system would not function on water pressure alone as it does now. This adds cost, complexity, and new failure modes. Power outage? There goes the toilets.

      The whole idea is a Rube. If the relatively small losses in the hot water pipes concern you, build a home with insulated hot water pipes. Add a central vac if you like. The end result will be cheaper, more efficient, and 99% less insane.

  • by cyn1c77 (928549) on Monday January 11, 2010 @01:54AM (#30720244)

    "Every day, 7,000 times a day, Stanford Hospital staff turn to pneumatic tubes, cutting-edge technology in the 19th century, for a transport network that the Internet and all the latest Silicon Valley wizardry can't match: A tubular system to transport a lab sample across the medical center in the blink of an eye."

    This article might be interesting if you are, say, 15. But they were (and still are) used in banks, the post office, supermarkets and anywhere else people need to transport small packages and money in a complex. Look around next time you are out in the world and you will likely see a few of these tubes.

    How about an article on another archaic, 19th-century piece of technology that works better than any modern Silicon Valley wizardry: the internal combustion engine. I look forward to the one about the bicycle too!

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