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Aethon: Robotic Tugs Deliver Improved Care and Cost Savings for Hospitals

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “robot”? A metal man with a square head and mechanical limbs? In actual practice, this image, made popular by countless movies, books and cartoons, is largely a fantasy. True working robots are purpose-built for the functions they serve-and are particularly suited to mundane, repetitive jobs.


Aethon developed the Tug, a robot little larger than a suitcase that transports hospital goods from place to place under its own direction. Because it performs the tedious and often difficult task of hauling and delivering items that nurses and other health care providers would otherwise do, the Tug saves hospitals significant amounts of money.

One such robot is the Tug, a practical and affordable robotic vehicle little larger than a suitcase that transports hospital goods from place to place under its own direction. The Tug performs the tedious and often difficult task of hauling and delivering items that nurses and other health care providers would otherwise do, giving them more time for patient care and saving hospitals significant amounts of money.

“Typically, hospitals can save the work done by 2.4 employees over 21 shifts for every Tug in use-the payback is immediate,” says Aldo Zini, president and CEO of Aethon, Pittsburgh-based manufacturer of the Tug.

The Tug solves a real-world business problem that’s especially vexing for hospital workers. “On a given day in a busy hospital, skilled personnel make thousands of routine trips to deliver medications, meals, supplies, charts, linens, equipment and more,” says Zini. “These time-consuming tasks are usually performed by scarce and overworked nurses, pharmacists and other clinicians-experienced employees whose time is much better invested in working with patients.”

Built to Deliver

Enter the Tug, which can haul up to 500 pounds and transport a wide variety of hospital carts. The hospital worker simply attaches a delivery to the cart, presses a button to select the destination and pushes the “go” button. The Tug has been programmed to “remember” and navigate the layout of the facility. It automatically travels to its destination, announces that the delivery has arrived and returns to its home base, where it waits on its charger for the next delivery.

Currently more than 50 hospitals are using the Tug, with an average return on investment of better than 30 percent. “These things are proven-reduced delivery times, improved nurse satisfaction and enhanced patient satisfaction,” says Zini. “Many hospitals are using up to seven or eight Tugs in various applications.”

Pulling for Success

Business is booming. Aethon, which now employs 86 people, moved to a larger facility in 2005, more than quadrupling its operating space. The company’s forward momentum, says Zini, can be traced directly to the assistance of Ben Franklin Technology Partners, which invested $800,000 in the company to help get it started.

“Ben Franklin definitely played a key role in getting Aethon off the ground,” says Zini. “And though the money was certainly important, their assistance in identifying health care as a major market for our technology was just as critical to our success.”

The company currently holds the enviable position of being the only company in the world with this innovative technology. “There is no competition,” says Zini. “The barrier to entry is huge. We have numerous patents covering both our technology and our process of automating the movement of goods.”

Famous Pedigree, Bright Future

The company was founded five years ago by robotics pioneer Henry Thorne, who has a number of successful robot-related businesses to his credit.

“Though Thorne is no longer directly involved in the company, he is still a shareholder, and his vision for low-cost mobile robotics lives on,” says Zini, who became Aethon’s CEO in 2002.

In addition to the lucrative health care market, Aethon is banking on the fact that its core technology can be applied in many other industries. “The company has had numerous inquiries from large retail distribution centers, warehouses and the hotel industry,” says Zini.

The company expects to double its staff over the next 12 to 18 months to keep up with the hospital demand for the Tug alone.

“More and more hospitals are beginning to hear about the significant savings and process improvements being made by Tugs. With continuing pressure to decrease costs, improve safety and enhance patient satisfaction, hospitals are looking for technology like the Tug to meet these demands,” says Zini.

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This article was featured in
Keynotes February, 2007
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