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Robinson-based TUG maker Aethon builds on health care trend

| Monday, Feb. 3, 2014, 11:33 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Aethon production manager Tom Connor assembles a TUG head on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2013, in the company’s Robinson headquarters. Aethon makes robotics for the health care industry.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Aethon President and CEO Aldo Zini said he expects TUG robots to be in hospitals in Germany, Canada and Australia before the end of the year. The company makes robotics for the health care industry.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
A worker at the Aethon Cloud Command Center monitors the Robinson-based company's robots on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Workers at the Aethon Cloud Command Center monitor the Robinson-based company's robots on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014.

The push to reduce health care spending has been a boon for Robinson robotics maker Aethon Inc.

The 13-year-old manufacturer of robots that transport supplies within hospitals just finished up its best year of sales on record because hospital administrators are looking to use the company's autonomous machines to reduce costs and improve efficiency, said CEO Aldo Zini.

“Many hospitals are already bare bones. They can't cut any more staff,” Zini said.

Aethon's robot, the trash barrel-sized TUG, performs a variety of tasks that are labor intensive and can cause injuries, such as waste disposal and laundry and food delivery, or are security sensitive, such as delivery of pharmaceuticals to a nursing ward. It responds to calls for pickups and deliveries, can navigate autonomously and pages employees when it arrives with supplies.

TUGs have been deployed to about 150 American hospitals since 2004 — including a record 21 medical centers during 2013, Zini said. It is in one hospital in Denmark, and Zini said he expects TUGs to be in hospitals in Germany, Canada and Australia before the end of the year.

A $3 million investment last month from Mitsui & Co. Inc., the American subsidiary of Japanese industrial conglomerate Mitsui & Co. Ltd., will help Aethon expand international sales. Mitsui invested $4 million in Aethon in 2012.

The privately held company doesn't release sales figures. But hospitals typically lease a TUG for between $1,500 and $2,000 a month, Zini said. Aethon has produced about 450 TUGs in the last decade.

Sales have more than doubled in the past two years, he said. And he's predicting sales will double again in the “next several years.”

“We're growing nicely as a company,” Zini said. “Everything is going in the right direction and we just hope that continues.”

Aethon was founded in 2001 by Henry Thorne, who left the company in 2003 and co-founded Thorley Industries, the Strip District-based parent of 4moms, a company that makes robotic infant and children's products.

Zini, who joined Aethon soon after it was founded, said he was named CEO after Thorne's departure and in 2004 focused the company on the hospital market.

An early customer of and investor in Aethon was hospital giant UPMC, which has used TUGs in five of its hospitals in the Pittsburgh region, said John Krolicki, UPMC's vice president of facilities and support services.

Most recently, UPMC bought 20 TUGs in late 2012 for linen, trash and food services at its Presbyterian and Shadyside hospitals, Krolicki said. TUGs typically cost between $75,000 and $140,000.

UPMC traditionally has had high turnover and many worker injuries in those positions, he said.

“It's definitely showed a cost savings,” he said of deploying TUGs.

“They're really replacing work that the employees did not enjoy doing,” he said. “That's why they've been so successful around the country.”

In addition to trying to expand sales around the world, Zini said growth will come from a tracking service Aethon has developed.

“Anything that gets delivered in a hospital should be tracked, starting with the pharmacy,” Zini said.

Using bar-code scanning and RFID, or radio-frequency identification, the company is helping hospitals prevent narcotic drugs from being stolen by employees, as well as reducing paperwork and improving the timeliness with which drugs are delivered to patients, he said.

Building from its tracking systems is an effort to link with hospital medical-record systems. Aethon is working with two of the largest developers of electronic medical record systems, Epic and Cerner, on integration, Zini said.

“I feel like we're just scratching the surface,” he said. “I think this year is going to be a really great year for us.”

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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