If you were to utter the word automation, most people would conjure up images of nothing but fancy ultramodern sophisticated gadgets or instruments. But to me, the word brings on nostalgic thoughts of a gentleman from Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC). During the 1980’s I had the good opportunity to work with the late Mr. M.N. Mehta, a scientific officer in BARC from whom I first learnt about Radioimmunoassays. He was predictability personified. Every thing he did, he did, as though he were an automated robot. Starting from his daily arrival to the lab, the removing of reagents from the refrigerator, switching on the centrifuge, every single activity was timed with utmost precision. If a batch of tubes had to be incubated for 90 minutes he would do it in precisely 90 minutes, 99% of the times and probably vary by plus minus 5 minutes in the remaining 1%. Since everything was so predictable neither the patients had to wait for the reports, nor colleagues no family members had anything to complain about. A person who would cheerfully do the same job, same way, same time, every day, day after day was a matter of wonder for me. His simplicity really awed me. As computers were still very scarce those days, according to me he was the best possible ‘versatile RIA automated system’ available then.
In 1984, the first computer, a huge one that occupied half the space in a 10ft × 10ft room was installed in out department at BARC. The late Dr. R. D. Ganatra, the then Head, Radiation Medicine Centre, had decreed that only those involved with its immediate use were to be allowed to go anywhere near it. All others including many senior officers were simply left wondering what it looked like and what great functions and tasks could it perform. Being merely a scientific assistant, entry to that room itself was forbidden for me. But soon, my curiosity got the better of me; one evening after most of the staff had left, with the help of a friendly security officer I managed to sneak in. Just as we were about to switch it on, out of nowhere appeared, Dr. Ganatra putting us in a terrible quandary. We were threatened with a possible memo, on the grounds of stealing sensitive BARC data! Only after a lot of cajoling and apologies were we finally let off.
Today, in my organization, which happens to be the world’s largest thyroid testing laboratory, almost every one has a PC. Our computers are networked around very powerful softwares that allow employees to do on those computers what the Company wants them to do and NOT what they want to. The PC’s are all equipped for the following:
No manual entries are permitted inside the ‘online’ laboratory. No specimen is accepted that is not received in a barcoded vial, no cheque or DD is accepted without a barcode behind the instrument, no bills or communications are accepted without a barcode on it. No file or no library book in the organization is without a barcode. If a franchisee is overdue on payment he cannot access his reports. If a staff member has not completed his work, he cannot log out. Every director gets information on his monitor, what time, which consignment is received, what time, which sample and for what it is cancelled, what subject and from whom a letter is sent out or received, who entertained which visitor, which client from which part of the country sends for particular tests more than the rest, 100 such informative mails goes to relevant directors each day. The best part is that even if some one wants to make an error, they have to plan for it meticulously. No doubt that computers today are an indispensable part of any business or for life itself. But I still hold for Mr. Mehta in high esteem and fondly remember him even in this computer age.