“Cage handling automation does not work!” How often have you heard this in the hallway discussions of industry conventions or meetings?

The reality is that cage handling automation has come of age and is successfully working at a number of prestigious facilities around the world. The facilities that have installed the latest generation of systems have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor, energy, and other costs, and will continue to add on to these savings year after year.

So why do we continue to hear the negative dialog about automation? The early systems that pioneered automation had a number of challenges to overcome, including specialized washers, underperforming tooling that would loose cage grip, weak scraping, incomplete cage stacking, and complex robotic software, just to name a few. Little credit is given to the OEMs, facilities, and consultants who were the cutting edge, “brave souls” that staked their reputations on developing new  and better systems for arguably the most hazardous of duties – handling thousands of cages per day. While most people know of stories of people being fired and systems being torn out, much was learned from these early automation systems, and the pioneers can take a good share of credit for today’s highly functional and efficient systems.

The basic function of a dirty side automation system is to unload cages from a cart, scrape and empty cages, and place them onto the tunnel washer. On the clean end, the basic function is to flip the cages upright, fill them with bedding, and stack them on a cart. Other needs of the system may include handling water bottles, plastic and metal lids, and food.

Is automation a “no-brainer”? No. Each facility must analyze its specific needs and challenges. Considerations should include labor issues, available footprint, throughput requirements, washer needs, cage assembly, environmental concerns, and energy usage. Depending on the needs of the facility, a system can go from purchase order to install in less than six months, but can take up to twelve months for specialized applications. Many issues can affect this timeline, including facility infrastructure such as the accessibility of electrical power and pressurized air.

Cage Handling: Human Factors
The issue that continues to be in the forefront of cage handling discussions is the human factors of cleaning and stacking cages. Employee health and welfare, worker compensation claims, and future litigation regarding long term health issues are taking on more importance in the laboratory environment and in many cases, will drive the decision to automate or not. Creating a stable work force with limited turnover continues to be one of the lab animal industry’s biggest challenges. Many times, technicians have a variety of job responsibilities they find interesting and enjoyable, yet they are unhappy due to cage handling in the wash area. With an automated cage handling system, where thousands of cages are processed in an eight hour period, only two people are needed in the wash room and they are present primarily to monitor the operation and move the carts. The technicians I have interviewed agree that system monitoring and cart coordination is much more rewarding and less hazardous than cage scraping and stacking!

The following is an example of the labor savings in the washroom: An un-automated facility that uses eight people, four on the dirty and four on the clean, at a rate of $35,000/year/worker would see a savings of over $200,000 per year if they moved to an automated system that required only two people. In many cases, moving to an automated system does not lead to layoffs, but rather a reallocation of labor resources into areas of greater need.

To Automate or Not….
Flexibility and Throughput
Few facilities in the world with a properly set up automation system would need to wash more that eight hours per day. If you are currently running a manual operation more that eight hours per day, you should consider an automated system because your savings would be substantial. For a full automation system (clean and dirty) most analysis indicates that a minimum of 20,000 cages need to be processed for a significant payback. Other human factors may significantly reduce this 20,000 cage requirement, however. For smaller specialized systems that, for example, handle only dirty cages, the number can also be substantially reduced below the 20,000 cage threshold.

Automation systems that work with a standard tunnel washer versus a specialized indexing tunnel washer seem to have the most speed and flexibility in throughput. Depending on the model, a standard tunnel washer canrun continuously up to 10 feet per minute and with the throughput flexibility for virtually any piece of equipment that needs to be cleaned. Standard tunnel washers have traditionally been more reliable than indexing washers in that there are fewer moving parts. In addition, some automation systems can allow manual use of the washer in case of emergencies and equipment breakdown. This is an important feature to consider.

Energy Costs
The rising cost of energy is now dictating many automation decisions; more so today than in the past, when they might have been just one of a number of considerations for equipment choices. These costs have approached thresholds never seen before and are having consequences on virtually every aspect of the facility. For a high throughput facility, an energy efficient tunnel washer that is loaded by an automated system, with a constant flow of cages, can be run fewer hours per day creating a number of different opportunities for reduced costs. Facilities that have washer bottlenecks which prevent them from adding animals or other research, may find that these additional efficiencies allow for a breakthrough that impacts virtually every aspect of the facility, from employee moral to reduced costs.

Phased implementation is an option for those facilities that may have budget constraints or concerns about the technology. In this scenario, a choice can be made between automating the dirty or clean side. For most people, the choice would fall to the dirty side, as many of the activities associated with the dirty cages are the most time consuming and hazardous to a person’s health. Significant efficiencies can be gained with the implementation of a dirty side only system, but it is important to note that there remains a number of ergonomic and time consuming activities on the clean side as well, including cage stacking, cage flipping, bedding/food dispensing, etc that will remain manual tasks.

What many people do not realize is that automated systems can be installed in virtually any existing facility, as well as new buildings. When considering an automation system for tight spaces, look for configuration flexibility that allows for a variety of footprints and layouts. After a system has been selected, one of the biggest factors in successful implementation is the Factory Acceptance Test (FAT). The FAT gives the assurance to the customer that the system can meet the requirements specified, and allows for any changes that may need to be made much easier, as they are done in the manufacturer’s facilities. The test is normally done about three months ahead of the installation date to ensure corrections can be made in a timely manner.

The success of existing cage handling automation systems provides the opportunity to visit a number of facilities which, in some cases, have been in place for years. This gives customers a chance to compare systems and make the best decisions for their unique requirements. Most of these facilities are extremely proud of their successes and are eager to give tours.

Cage handling automation continues to evolve as systems have been designed that handle cages in every area of the facility, including change out rooms and ventilated racks. For facilities that have unique handling requirements, including fully assembled cages, systems have been designed to accommodate and adapt to the user’s requirements. If you believe your facility cannot make use of automation due to your unique requirements, whether it is building space or cage styles, talk to an automaton suppler and allow them to explore the opportunities with you. The solutions may be much more attainable than you thought.

Cage handling automation does work.

Bruce Ginder B.S., MBA is President of Visron Design, Inc., an ISO9001 certified manufacturing/ engineering firm that specializes in laboratory automation solutions. Visron supplied the automation system for the 2007 TurnKey Facility of the Year award winner, Harvard University. You can contact Bruce at 585-292-5780, bginder@visron.comor visit