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They came up with a solution for the solution – and the results are fantastic

February 19, 2020

Vale technicians from left to right: Devin O’Brien, Kent Edwards and Dale Loder. Photo: Vale Archive

If you’re ever worked in a lab, you know that repeating the same task over and over is an expected part of the job. Dale Loder, senior chemist, Long Harbour, NL and his team know this all too well, and they also know, firsthand, that sometimes the task in question can be problematic. We’ll pass it over to Dale to explain:   

“Laboratory employees at our Long Harbour Processing Plant use syringes to manually filter several dozen, if not hundreds, of samples per day. Many of these samples are a combination of solutions and solids. To run the solutions in our analyzers, we have to filter out (a.k.a. polish) the particulates. To polish, we draw up solutions in a syringe attached with a filter, then manually push down on the syringe plunger to filter the sample. This drawing up-pushing down motion is something we may do more than 100 times in a 24-hour period, which can place a lot of strain forearms and hands, and is further compounded by samples that are difficult to filter. 

Not surprising, we started seeing an increase in reports of repetitive stress injuries to the tendons in forearms; almost half the employees have suffered some degree of injury related to the syringes. We implemented many improvements, such as ergonomic mats, chairs and height-adjustable workstations. These improvements had a positive impact but were not applicable to the syringe-filtering problem.  

We also had a couple of incidents in the past where the syringe filter or syringe itself would split under pressure when being plunged manually. This posed an additional potential risk of hazardous solutions spraying on employees. 

To solve these problems, we reached out to the folks in Applied Research and Innovation at the College of the North Atlantic (CNA) to explore ways to automate the procedure. I arranged a site visit, explained some of the issues we were having, and got approval from management to pursue this collaborative venture with them.

Randall Power, an engineer with CNA, was the mastermind behind the design. Randall and I collaborated over a period of a couple of months until we got to the prototype that you see in the pictures I took below.

Automatic syringe filter prototype. Photo: Vale Archive

The pneumatic syringe filter prototype was put in place just before Christmas, and is made predominantly out of parts ordered from Princess Auto and 3D printed material that we made right here in the lab! 

Since it was installed, the prototype has run without failure and has replaced about 95 per cent of the syringe filtering that was done by hand. The automated pneumatic press processes five samples at a time, with zero strain on the individual performing the task. Employees find it easy to use, and love that they are able to do their work without risking injury while maintaining lab throughput. (Lab throughput is the flow of samples requiring analysis into the lab, and the respective results going out). And since the prototype’s components are all behind a Plexiglas door, there is zero risk of exposure to the potentially hazardous materials inside.

Now that the prototype has proven itself so successful, we invested in our own 3D printer. We purchased it on Amazon for $800 and the necessary parts from Princess Auto, and I’m currently making a second unit for another area of our lab. 

3D printer with sample part for the syringe filter unit that the printer was used to create. Photo: Vale Archive

Our 3D printer will continue to support this initiative, but has already proven itself useful for other applications in the lab. All parts can now be made in-house as required, at a very low cost. 

I’m sharing this story in the hopes that our new innovation could assist any of our sister labs that might be having similar issues. Please feel free to contact me for any additional details.”

Dale Loder, senior chemist, Long Harbour Processing Plant, Long Harbour, NL. Email Dale at: Dale.Loder@vale.com or you can call him: (709) 228-3557. 

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