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The pneumatic tube – this is how it works

Marvin Weinmeyer
24 February 2023
Reading Time: 6 min.
Select the app, type a short message, send it, and the text will arrive almost simultaneously at the intended recipient. Until the 19th century, it took us several days, sometimes even weeks, to transmit information that we can transmit within seconds today. Thanks to digitalization, long message transmission times are a thing of the past. Pneumatic tubes, that were used to transmit postal correspondence from the 1850s onward, still play an important role today: Many technological innovations made them become crucial – especially in system- relevant areas of our society.
TranspoNet pneumatic tube system

Message via compressed air

The history of pneumatic tube systems can be traced back to the 1850s. The first operating system was built by engineer Josiah Latimer Clark and went into operation at the London Telegraph Office in 1853. Shorter paths for rapid transport were created: Letters, telegrams and even parcels were put in cylindrical containers and sent through the tubes. Colored markings served as identification for the various shipments.

Particularly for the stock market, it was an important and, above all, fast method of communication at that time: if messages were not delivered in a timely manner, speculators ran the risk of losing a fortune. More and more pneumatic tube systems were also used in retail trade, banks, and the chemical and automotive industries – mostly to transmit production samples to laboratories. High quality was ensured.

In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, the air system became established in other cities besides London. Mail was sent by the Prague tube network until 2002 – the longest time an air system was used for mail deliveries. However, transport through the underground became increasingly difficult over the years. More and more disruptions occurred, individual tube sections shifted underground and maintenance work became more complicated.

Today, the system is mostly used for fast and reliable intralogistics. The goal remained the same as in the past: Overcoming distances with fast and safe transport.


How does the pneumatic tube work?

The concept of a pneumatic tube system has not changed since its development many years ago: each system is powered by air. One or more air compressors and a network of different delivery tubes form the basis of every system. For carriers that need to be transported several floors upwards, compressed air is required. To transport pneumatic tube carriers to a lower floor, it is sucked in by the help of air. Horizontal transport works with both compressed air and by suction depending on the system. The pneumatic tube software is used to transmit information about the level where individual pneumatic tube stations are located as well as where to transport the individual carriers.

Most installations that operate with an air compressor use air diverters. These are usually located above the compressor and regulate whether the carrier in a pneumatic tube system is conveyed by compressed air or by suction. The air switches are thus responsible for the air compressor to change from pressure to suction and vice versa.

Several switches in the individual transport pipes ensure that the correct station is addressed. As soon as a carrier is routed to another branch of the tube, the information is transmitted via the pneumatic tube software. Frequency converters on the blower are used to prevent containers from being transported too fast. They slow down the journeys within the pneumatic tube network, preventing the carrier and its contents from being damaged.

Large pneumatic tube systems that cover several buildings and floors usually require several transport lines and blowers. The transport lines operate similarly to the routes of a subway network. Individual carriers often have to change lines to reach their destination. By means of transfer units, a possibility to leave one line in order to continue on another is created. This compact crossing allows an automatic exchange of containers between several lines.

Special particle filters are used to clean the air inside a pneumatic tube system. Microscopic particles such as dust or pollen are removed from the transport tubes.


The pneumatic tube in hospitals

Especially in hospitals, pneumatic tube systems still play an essential role. Even though state-of-the-art technology is used in many medical areas, the well-tried mode of operation of pneumatic tube systems still handles a large part of the critical intralogistic transport routes in hospitals. The quality of transport of goods is extremely important, as misdelivered goods or improper handling during pneumatic transport negatively impact logistical operations, staff efficiency and patient care.

The pneumatic tube system ideally connects all wards, surgical rooms and departments with the hospital's laboratory and central pharmacy. It significantly shortens delivery times and handles two of the most important material flows in the hospital – diagnostics and therapy.


Nurse opens pneumatic tube carrier

Certain features, such as speed, distance covered or packaging material, might influence the condition of medical goods, especially blood samples, during transport. However, studies have shown that there is no statistical difference, whether specimens, such as hemolyzing samples, are transported by a pneumatic tube system or manually. Additionally, automated transport offers a high level of process and patient safety.

At the same time, pneumatic tube systems simplify the daily routine of clinical staff, as errands are avoided, and resources can thus be used for therapy-related services. The system's constant availability, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, also contributes to smoother, more efficient and faster care.

As a result, test results are provided faster, leaving more time for patient treatment. The pneumatic tube system can be regarded as the logistical backbone of patient therapy, which is why regular maintenance and continuous modernization of the system are so important. In particular, keeping the software up to date is essential. From time to time, however, the system should also be upgraded to ensure that the switches, stations and crossings meet the latest technological standards. This is the only way to ensure future-proof, reliable and safe processes in hospital operations.

The pneumatic tube system sets international standards in the field of medication and laboratory sample transport as well as in hospital logistics. Currently, over 3,000 healthcare facilities worldwide use our pneumatic tube systems.

Benefits of a pneumatic tube at a glance

  • Fast and safe transport
  • Reduced risk of contamination
  • Conserves resources
  • Increased efficiency
  • Relief for medical staff
  • More time for patients

TranspoNet Pneumatic Tube System

The integrated pneumatic tube system TranspoNet is a fully comprehensive automation solution for transport in hospitals. Different station types can be used to send and receive carriers depending on the hospital's individual application requirements.

Fully automating the loading and unloading of laboratory samples can increase laboratory efficiency by up to 50%. These pneumatic tube stations receive and unload the content of a carrier and automatically return it to the system. This ensures that every carrier always arrives where it’s needed most.

Depending on the goods to be transported, hospitals use different pneumatic tube carriers. Along with standard carriers, leak-proof containers provide additional transport protection for liquid goods. Special foam inserts are available for the carriers to prevent transport damage, for example for sample vials. A HEPA filter can be used to remove bacteria or viruses from the tubes.

One of the largest TranspoNet pneumatic tube systems from Swisslog Healthcare is installed at Klinikum rechts der Isar in Munich, Germany. The system consists of over 200 stations. And a total of 1,300 carriers are in use. On average, this enables 3,300 transports per working day.

Another large system is located at the Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam. This system extends over a length of 16 kilometers and transports around 400 carriers per hour on working days.


Do you want to learn more about the implementation or modernization of our pneumatic tube system TranspoNet? Our experts are always available to answer your questions – contact us.


About the author

Marvin Weinmeyer as Head of Customer Care GAS is responsible for the customer service and project realization in Germany and Switzerland.

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