RFID Finds the Right Fit for Automated Sterile Glove Dispensing

By Claire Swedberg

A machine developed by Texas Medical Technology's iNitrile division enables healthcare providers to tap an ID card and have the appropriate-sized gloves placed on their hands, thereby reducing waste and contamination risk.

Among the consumable tools that healthcare workers most commonly reach for during their workday are nitrile gloves, which ensure they can treat patients without transmitting infections. The COVID-19 pandemic has put new pressure on a system of accessing and using those gloves, which has led healthcare companies to seek a solution that is more automatic, safer and less wasteful, according to  Texas Medical Technology. Therefore, the technology company has built an automated nitrile glove dispenser that ensures users will not have to touch anything, since they will be automatically identified and the right-sized gloves will be placed on their hands.

The solution employs RFID technology to identify users, confirm their authorization to access gloves and the size they wear, and dispense those gloves. Known as iNitrile, it consists of a dispensing machine into which users reach, placing their hands directly into properly sized and presented gloves, while an RFID reader at the front of the machine interrogates their RFID badges, according to Ricardo Espejel, the CTO of iNitrile, a Mexico-based division of Texas Medical Technology. The division employs seven engineers who develop solutions used in aerospace, automotive and IT applications, Espejel says, and it provides medical supplies to hospitals in Mexico and the United States, including surgical gowns, masks, gloves and safety kits.

Ricardo Espejel

Texas Medical Technology's medtech division manufactures equipment and gadgets for the healthcare industry, such as sanitizing stations and a sanitizing drone known as the SaniDrone UAV, which disperses a sanitizing spraying in stadium bleachers and other places. When it comes to glove use at hospitals, the company reports, a need emerged for employees to be able to access gloves in a sanitized way, without touching anything except the interior of the gloves themselves.

"There is a lot of touching when someone takes a glove," Espejel says. Doctors or nurses may inadvertently take more gloves than they meant to, and those extra gloves can no longer be used since they are potentially contaminated due to this contact. As such, a large percentage of gloves are wasted with the manual method—as much as 30 percent, according to Texas Medical Technology's statistics.

In June 2020, the company identified a need for a technology-based solution to ensuring sterile glove use, recalls Omri Shafran, Texas Medical Technology's CEO. The engineers began to develop an automated glove dispenser that would eliminate the risks of infection transmission and glove waste. The team prototyped, tested and manufactured the solution within a span of approximately 90 days. The result, he says, is the iNitrile machine, which is slated to be made available for mass production in June of this year.

The need for a fast solution was Texas Medical Technology's greatest challenge, Espejel says. Hospitals required the solution quickly as the high volume of COVID-19 patients continued to put pressure on healthcare workers. "We used a methodology of engineering development that came from aerospace," he states. The company examined ATMs, food dispensers, drink dispensers and automated packaging machines, Espejel recalls, and found no other dispenser that could provide gloves in such a ways that they could be placed directly on a user's hands in a touch-free manner.

Omri Shafran

"We started with brainstorming," Espejel states, "and ultimately narrowed all our thoughts to the iNitrile machine." To ensure the product could be developed, prototyped, tested and manufactured within only a few months, Texas Medical Technology employed a 3D printing model. The engineering required some ingenuity to ensure users could consistently access one of three sizes of gloves and have them ready for wearing. For one thing, he says, soft, flexible gloves are not easy to pick up with a human hand, let alone by a machine.

The solution needed to be able not only to pick up the gloves, but also open them and position them properly for users. Therefore, the firm chose a swivel arm system and vacuum technology. The vacuum is applied to one side of each glove, enabling the machine to pick it up. The glove is then positioned so that another vacuum from the other side opens it. The gloves are presented to an opening in the dispenser, and users can slide their hands into the machine and into the gloves.

After numerous iterations, the finished product leverages 3D printing for manufacturing, along with waterjet, laser-cutting and computer numeric control machining. Materials include aluminum, stainless steel and acrylic, and the process requires RFID technology to prompt the action. Users must first acquire an RFID-enabled card, the encoded unique ID number of which the system's firmware uses to authorize individuals to access the gloves. To sign into the system, a user would present the card, which contains a 13.56 MHz HF RFID chip compliant with ISO 15693.

The reader at the front of the dispenser captures each tag ID, and users are invited to use the touch screen to enter their information. As those new to the machine input their data, such as the size of gloves they wear and their name, the system links that size with their card ID. From that point forward, they then can use the device touch-free. Each time they acquire new gloves, they first tap the ID badge near the reader, then use a gel dispenser at the front of the machine to sanitize their hands. The reader identifies them, determines the glove size they require and presents the opened gloves inside the apparatus. This process is carried out twice—once for each glove.

The company says the system can reduce glove waste, thereby decreasing a hospital's trash stream and saving money. "This machine is going to help reduce the waste," Shafran says, adding that most importantly, it solves contamination issues. For instance, manually putting on gloves will always require some touching of the gloves' exterior, and if a person's hands are not properly sanitized, infections can result.

The dispenser data can be captured and stored in a cloud-based server for analytics purposes, Shafran reports. For instance, Texas Medical Technology provides a dashboard to receive, store and analyze the collected RFID tag-read data. By reading each tag ID and linking that information to the individual who owns the RFID card, along with the time, place and date, companies can track the usage of gloves according to size, time or shift. That data can help businesses better manage inventory levels based on usage, as well as determine when individuals may need further training to ensure they are using gloves at proper frequencies.

The company is currently working on other sanitized glove solutions, Shafran says, which include printing a QR code on gloves dispensed to users. With artificial intelligence-based cameras deployed at specific locations, the system thus knows that a glove was used, and even which glove, for surgery or other purposes. "We've been working day and night to make it happen," Shafran states. With the release of the iNitrile machine, the company says it has had numerous requests from healthcare companies. "This is the first product I've seen where we don't have to go to customers—the customers are coming to us."