Sunday, August 10, 2003

The Queen's Medical Center has spent $1 million on a pneumatic tube system to move stuff around the hospital. Medicines, samples and (at least once) birthday cake whoosh through the tangle of giant tubes to their programmed destinations. Mike Kim Seu, Queen's manager of general maintenance, stands in a room where all the tubes converge.

totally tubular

Queen's hospital has spent
$1 million upgrading an old,
but useful, technology

Getting tubed

It's hard to envision in these days of e-mail and fiber optic cable systems, but a hundred years ago pneumatic tubes were prized as business delivery systems.

Central post offices in Chicago and New York used underground pneumatic tubes to send letters, in batches of up to 500, to branch offices.

Department-store customers were used to seeing a sales clerk take their money, bundle it with a sales slip into a tubular container and send it rocketing through a pipe to a central cashier hidden somewhere in the building. In a few minutes, back would come the change and a receipt.

Futuristic magazines in the early 20th Century envisioned pneumatic people-movers using air suction and pressure to moved sealed carloads of passengers across and between cities.

Thirty-five years ago, the Star-Bulletin used pneumatic tubes to convey words, typed with mechanical typewriters and pencil-edited by copy readers, through to Linotype operators who would physically transform them into molded-metal slugs of type.

All of that has long-since been replaced by computers and high-powered digital transmission of words and pictures.

Mike Kim Seu, Queen's manager of general maintenance, is at the controls of the hospital's million-dollar pneumatic tube transport system.

It turns out, though, that pneumatic tube delivery systems still have a vital role in modern business, particular in hospitals and health clinics.

The Queen's Medical Center recently invested $1 million in a pneumatic tube system that wends it way throughout the hospital's 10 story complex on Punchbowl Street.

The logic is plain to Mike Kim Seu, Queen's manager of general maintenance. "It used to take an army to move the stuff we move today," he said, standing in the midst of a maze of tubes in the 19-foot-high pneumatic tube system center.

The "stuff" just isn't the kind of material you can move by computer. Bottles and boxes of medications move from the pharmacy to the nurses' stations. Blood and other biological samples move to testing labs. The system is used for patient records on paper that are not computerized, the kind of thing that nurses and doctors carry around on their clip boards.

Directed by computers, the items move in sealed containers, called canisters, at 25 feet per second through a total of 9.5 miles of tubes. Looking at the curved mesh of tubes where they meet in what used to be an empty space between two buildings of the hospital, it is easy to see it in anatomical terms, looking like a web of connected arteries.

Engineers at Queen's even described the switch-over to the new system three weeks ago as like a heart transplant.

Queen's insists on it being used carefully, because it is so vital to the hospital.

"Once someone tried to send a birthday cake through it," Kim Seu recalled. It seemed like the quickest way to share goodies between one department and another. "The Ziploc bag opened up and it came out in a big splatter at the end," he said.

A Queen's staff newsletter says that sort of thing is a definite no-no and the system must only be used for items related to the operation of the hospital and the care of patients. Blood and other samples must be securely double-bagged and tightly sealed in the canister. Weight and size limitations have to be followed closely.

The system saves countless man-hours. Before it was installed, samples, X-ray plates and medications all had to be hand-carried or wheeled on carts throughout the hospital. Gail Tiwanak, Queen's vice president of marketing and communications, said the hospital used to call its transportation system "people power and dumb waiters."

About 25 years ago, after taking a good look at how pneumatic systems had been making a comeback, Queen's installed its first system. It quickly proved its worth. This year, construction in one part of the hospital would have required the tubes to be shut down for as much as three months and the medical staff declared that unacceptable, Kim Seu said.

That created the opportunity for an upgrade and the move into the unused space between Queen Emma Tower and the Kamehameha Wing. In 25 years, the hospital's internal transportation needs had greatly expanded and the improvement expense was justified.

The system creates a near-vacuum before each moving canister and air pressure behind it, propelling it along at 25 feet per second. The computer knows when something has been sent and where it is going. The curve lines in the 6-inch pipes are carefully designed for maximum movement without risk of jamming.

In just three weeks since the new system was started, it has handled almost 100,000 transactions, said Kim Seu, defining a transaction as any time one canister is moved from one place to another.

By 8:30 a.m. on a recent Friday, when the Star-Bulletin visited Queen's, the system's day was well in progress with 840 transactions already recorded in the computers.

It is all about logic, as reflected in the name of the system, Swisslog Translogic. Translogic Corp., which was founded in Detroit in 1917 and went through several ownerships before becoming a leader in the pneumatic tube business in the late 1950s, was acquired in 1999 by Swisslog North America, part of an international business headquartered in Switzerland and named Swisslog Holdign AG. Translogic in Denver, Colo., became the headquarters of Swisslog North America.

Swisslog Translogic pneumatic systems are in place at a number of other hospitals and clinics in Hawaii, such as the Kaiser, Castle, St. Francis, Kuakini and Pali Momi hospitals on Oahu, Maui Memorial Hospital and Hilo Medical Center.

"It is definitely a time-saver. Staff can spend time taking care of patients instead of running all over the facility," said Jan Kagehiro, a spokeswoman for Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, which has pneumatic tubes throughout its Moanalua and Honolulu clinics.

Pneumatic tubes also find uses in banks and other facilities that need to move cash and other items from one place to another.

Now that the new system at Queen's is fully up and running, the hospital is looking into newer ways of increasing efficiency. Kim Seu said he will head to Denver in a couple of weeks to take a look at one of the newest, the "automatic guided vehicle."

These are carts that follow electronic guidepaths along hallways and in and out of rooms as they go about their daily rounds of unmanned pickups and deliveries.

Queen's Medical Center employee Terry Wong unloads a tube after it arrives in her office.

Getting tubed

Pneumatic-tube delivery systems are still in use at a variety of Hawaii businesses.

>> Hospitals: Most Hawaii hospitals use tubes to move biological samples, medications and paperwork among departments.

>> Banks: First Hawaiian Bank's University Center branch has tubes connecting tellers to the main money processing area.

Bank of Hawaii connects customers of its "virtual teller" video and ATM banking office with remote human tellers. It also has some tubes at its Waianae branch.

>> Retailers: This is where our parents and grandparents first saw pneumatic tubes, carrying sales slips and money to remote cashiers and returning with change and receipts. Almost all are digital now but the Costco and Home Depot stores dug into history for the best way and now use tubes to move money from cashiers to their central vault areas.



E-mail to Business Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2003 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --