Flexible RFID drives scalable medical sample shipments

Flexible RFID drives scalable medical sample shipments

Feature articles |
By Nick Flaherty

An innovative pod design for carrying medical samples is using a flexible RFID chip to track thousands of shipments every day

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the challenges of thousands of medical samples every day. A UK medical innovation company called Quality Hospital Solutions (QHS) is using flexible RFID technology to manage the movement of medical samples throughout the community.

“The NHS comes to QHS with issues that are currently unsolvable, and the NHS trust in Gateshead came to us with a problem of transport and tracking of samples taken in primary care such as a GP,” said David Frame, a director of Gateshead-based SamplePod, the spin out of QHS that is commercialising the pod.

“One of the challenges is there are seven or eight different standard formats and the pathology labs have no idea what’s in the bag until they open it, and this is the case for 10 to 11,000 samples per day. These are opened manually, and can be spoiled, the bar code doesn’t scan, it perhaps doesn’t tie up with the label. Overall, the system doesn’t scale,” said Frame.

To address this, QHS designed a carrier that could accommodate the most common sizes of the sample bottles to make them easier to transport and to use in the labs for testing, as the challenge is set to get even bigger.

“The move in the UK is to create super laboratories,” said Frame. “The investment in automation allows them to scale to 55,000 samples per day. The problem that they have is the manual labour in decanting 50,000 samples. What this will do is help expand the capacity of the labs and influence the patient outcomes, 2 to 3% of samples need to be retaken, at £60, and the outcome. This is an issue that is genuinely global,” he says.

“So the NHS wanted a pod that takes all the variants and eradicates the waste. For example, there is 5.5 tonnes of clinical waste a year just from one trust,” said Frame. “We resolved the transport issue with a stackable, rackable, sample unit but we didn’t have the technology for the tracking.”

So SamplePOD worked with Cambridge-based thin film RFID specialist PragmatIC on flexible technology that could be used in the labels around the samples for tracking.

“Our main business is a flexible wafer, and we work with customers. The first product is a RFID near field chip,” said Alastair Hanlon, CCO of PragmatIC.

“We work with tag makers to create rolls of labels that go into standard printers in the GP surgery. There’s also a tag in the pod that allows us to associate a unique ID with the pod and link those together. We have developed a reader so that the sample pod sits on a reader and as the GP registers the sample into the pod, that reads the barcode and the ID tag,” he said.

“PragmatIC is a good fit for this as its thin and flexible to go around the small sample tubes. If you put a silicon chip on there, trials found the tags would break – and our FlexIC are much lower cost than silicon.”

The chip is made on a polyimide substrate with thin film transistor and metal layer. “We use similar machines and form factors to silicon so we are not giving partners a totally weird product, its delivered on a wafer frame on a glass carrier,” he said.

At the moment the tag is just used to track the sample pot during transportation.

“When it gets to the lab they track the samples using the bar code – phase two is giving more information on the position of the samples in the lab using a mesh network,” said Hanlon.

The readers in the lab made by SamplePod but customers are wary of putting in too much technology in too quickly, he says “We understand what phase two needs,” said Frame at SamplePod. The company is working with Labman, a specialist in automation systems.

Last month PragmatIC raised £13m (€14m) to boost the production ramp-up, accelerate manufacturing optimisation and drive continued product innovation. This brings the total backing so far to $66m (€56m) from  investors including Cambridge Innovation Capital, ARM and label maker Avery Dennison..

The ConnectIC family of flexible integrated circuits (FlexICs) is being used in consumer goods, games, retail, pharmaceutical and security. Alternatively, designers can create their own application-specific flexible devices using the FlexIC Foundry offering. These are built using the company’s FlexLogIC equipment at a plant in Sedgefield.

The manufacturing equipment doesn’t need a clean room environment and the investment is dramatically lower than for a fab, says Hanlon. “We would look to license the manufacturing equipment as a possible business model for massive volumes, alongside selling RFID chips and service model of acting as a foundry for custom chips,” he said.

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