Automating hospital intralogistics? Why early planning is key

Robot Business

Mobile robots at a hospital

Automating hospital intralogistics? Why early planning is key

#HowToRobot -
Editorial team
Hospitals are increasingly deploying mobile robots to automate intralogistics operations at scale. However, successful implementation depends on several key factors, including early planning, according to independent advisors.

Automation has been a hot topic across all industries in recent years, and healthcare is no exception. Amidst hospitals worldwide grappling with staff shortages and overwork, automation offers a solution to enhance efficiency and maintain affordable healthcare in the future.

One significant area of automation in healthcare is intralogistics, which is a rapidly growing market. The global hospital logistics robots market size reached US$ 1,405.6 million in 2023, and it’s expected to reach US$ 6,540.3 million by 2032, growing over 18% annually during 2024-2032.

But investing in intralogistics isn’t one-size-fits-all for hospitals: each organization has their own unique needs, which they should take into account when planning and purchasing their automation solutions. We spoke with two HowToRobot advisors, Gulshan Akhtar, Senior Advisor; and Mikkel Viager, Principal Advisor in Automation Robotics, about how hospitals can get started automating intralogistics operations, the benefits automation brings, and the pitfalls to avoid.

Understanding Intralogistics in Hospitals

Intralogistics involves the planning, installation, and execution of new systems and ensuring the control of all material flows within a hospital with patients. Unlike traditional logistics, which focuses on the external movement of goods, intralogistics manages the internal flow of materials – which requires a high level of coordinated and supported information systems, cross-functionally integrated.

"In hospitals, intralogistics is particularly demanding," explains Akhtar. "It encompasses the continuous supply and movement of food, bed linens, medications, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and more. Every hospital, despite its unique functions, relies heavily on efficient internal logistics."

Viager elaborates, "Intralogistics automation in hospitals covers many applications. We see it in surgical operations, laboratory product units, central sterile supply departments, pharmacies, goods reception, and increasingly in waste management. Previously, each unit handled its own logistics in a silo, but there's growing interest in integrating these functions to scale up efficiency."

Drivers of Automation in Hospital Intralogistics

"Automation is trending everywhere, including healthcare," says Akhtar. And with the WHO’s latest estimate of a shortage of 10 million healthcare workers worldwide by 2030, it comes as no surprise. "Political pressures and demographic shifts are pushing hospital leaders to invest in automation,” she continues. “Automating mundane tasks can free up staff for more critical duties. While the patient-facing aspects of healthcare are still experimenting with automation, the technology itself in intralogistics is mature."

The topic is widely researched, and studies show that automating logistics and day-to-day tasks within hospitals can improve productivity by 40% and save 25% of costs over a 10-year period. "Tedious tasks, like transporting equipment and goods, can be completely replaced by automation, allowing staff to focus on more engaging responsibilities. Reliable automated systems ensure these tasks are still completed efficiently and on time, which is crucial in a healthcare setting," explains Viager.

Current Trends in Healthcare Intralogistics

As hospitals move towards automation, a significant trend that has emerged is the deployment of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). These robots are designed to navigate internally inside the hospital’s production units, such as the central sterile supply department, pharmacy, good reception, etc., and out in the hospital corridors. They work independently, transporting everything from medical supplies to linens. AMRs can be programmed to follow specific routes, avoid obstacles, communicate with doors and other systems, and even take elevators, making them incredibly versatile—and studies have shown them to be a great tool to invest in to free staff’s time. "Mobile robots are becoming indispensable in hospitals," says Viager. "They handle the logistical tasks that don't require human intervention, thus freeing up healthcare workers to focus on patient care."

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) are another related technology. Unlike AMRs, AGVs follow fixed routes, often using magnetic strips or tracks embedded in the floor. These vehicles can be well-suited for repetitive transportation tasks with fixed routes and are already in use in hospitals all over the world. However, AGVs have a lower level of flexibility to change routes or add new routes than AMRs. "AGVs are reliable and efficient for tasks that follow a set path, which does not need any flexibility," Akhtar notes. "They can reduce the time staff spend on these repetitive tasks, enhancing overall productivity and reducing costs – just like AMRs can."

Another trend is the implementation of pneumatic tube systems for rapid transport of small items like blood samples, medications, and documents. These systems use pressurized air to send canisters through a network of tubes, ensuring fast and secure delivery. "Pneumatic tube systems have been around for a while, with studies on their efficiency dating back to the 70s, but their integration with modern digital tracking systems has made them more efficient and reliable," says Akhtar.

Challenges in Implementing Intralogistics Automation

Many hospitals lack the expertise to manage advanced automation. They invest in high-tech medical equipment but struggle to specify and implement appropriate automated solutions. “It's easy to choose the wrong technology, leading to costly adjustments or abandonment of automation altogether. Before making any investment in intralogistics automation, hospitals need to understand their specific needs and implement customized systems," Akhtar notes.

"Human-robot collaboration is more well-established in industries like manufacturing, where every day can be expected to look the same. But hospitals are more complex. No two days are alike, and staff need proper training to integrate these technologies effectively,” she emphasizes. “Upskilling staff is crucial to ensure they understand and engage with the new systems, rather than seeing them as top-down impositions."

We see it happen often: the technology hospitals purchase doesn’t perform how they expect. Therefore, it remains unused, collecting dust in a corner – or takes longer than expected to become operational. This, again, can cause the technology users to become resistant to it and make hospital management increasingly reticent to making new investments in the technology. While rarely the fault of the technology, it’s often a matter of how it’s introduced and how expectations are aligned with its functionality.  

"There's a misconception that robots are inherently intelligent,” explains Viager. “But they are not. They perform exactly as programmed, so successful implementation depends on thorough planning and human oversight. Hospitals need to invest in teams dedicated to managing automation and integrating it with other systems. Early planning is vital—it's much cheaper to revise a plan on paper than to retrofit a poorly designed system."

Solutions and Best Practices

To overcome these challenges, hospitals should engage in meticulous planning before procurement. "Think through the entire system early on – in its expected environment from end to end," advises Akhtar. "Map out the logistics, understand all the third parties involved, and ensure the technology fits seamlessly into the hospital's operations and physical setting. This proactive approach prevents costly mistakes and ensures smoother implementation."

Remember that one-size-fits-all solutions rarely work in the complex environment of a hospital, so customizing automation systems to meet the unique needs of each hospital is crucial. This may involve integrating different technologies, such as AMRs, AGVs, pneumatic tube systems, and many others, to create a cohesive and efficient intralogistics network. "Hospitals need to understand their specific needs and implement customized systems," says Viager.

When discussing best practices, a fun fact stands out: a surprising but effective strategy is to name the robots. "Research shows that staff are more welcoming and cooperative when robots have names, viewing them as part of the team," Viager laughs. “So give them names!”