RED WING -- Central Research Laboratories has hit two major milestones this year — 75 years in business in Red Wing, and the production of its 10,000th telemanipulator.

A telemanipulator is a mechanical arm that allows an operator to move or work with materials on the opposite side of a protective wall.

“Typically the other side of the wall is hazardous,” said Rob Weber, product manager at CRL. “It is radioactive or something that the operator can’t be in contact with. They use one of these to transpose their hand motions to the other side of the wall.”

Historically most of the CRL telemanipulators have been used in working with radioactive materials and nuclear fuels, but Weber said recently the company is seeing more customers using them for medical purposes such as diagnostic and treatment applications for patients.

Using the telemanipulators and glove ports -- another CRL product -- in the life sciences is something that the company is very interested in increasing.

“In using telemanipulators and glove ports, you are trying to isolate something from a person or a person from something,” Weber said. “In the case of a nuclear application, you are trying to keep a person away from hazardous radioactive material. In pharmaceutical manufacturing, you might be trying to protect the sterile product from the operator. We have taken some of our products which we initially developed for nuclear and kind of turned them backwards, so that we are protecting the product rather than the person.”

Glove ports like these allow operators to work with material inside a sterile environment.  Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Glove ports like these allow operators to work with material inside a sterile environment. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

CRL opened for business in Red Wing in 1945, just after World War II, and the partners worked on electronic devices. By 1950, they had started their early work with telemanipulators, and that has been their focus since. Improvements and new models have been added, and today the company manufactures most of the parts and does the machine work in the Red Wing building at 3965 Pepin Ave.

In the midst of celebrating production of the company’s 10,000th telemanipulator, Weber said, “We have a manipulator working at the University of Michigan with the serial number 104. We have a big nuclear lab that is replacing manipulators that we shipped 50 years ago. They are still running, and we still service them.”

Learning to operate a telemanipulator is not difficult, according to Weber, but the difficulty is more in knowing how to handle the material.

Central Research Laboratories manufactures most of the parts and assembles the telemanipulators in their Red Wing plant.  Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Central Research Laboratories manufactures most of the parts and assembles the telemanipulators in their Red Wing plant. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

“The manipulators are pretty intuitive,” he said. “You can put your hands on it and learn how to use it, but in highly regulated nuclear facilities, they have rigorous training programs because they could do some awful things inside there if they do something wrong. Their training isn’t necessarily how to use the machine, but how to use it to do the specific job.”

Business has been strong for CRL, and the company is doing business in Europe, Japan, and throughout the United States.

“Right now, we are so busy that we are quoting out almost a year,” Weber said. “There are only a handful of companies in the world that make similar equipment to this.”