Beckman Coulter Inc: Medical Device Automation using Message-Passing Concurrency in Scheme

  • Vishesh Panchal Beckman Coulter Inc.
  • Bob Burger Beckman Coulter Inc.
September 22, 2013 12:10 - 12:35 PM


We are a group in Beckman Coulter using functional programming for controlling a molecular diagnostic device. The device contains 19 temperature, motor control and sensor boards, two barcode readers, and a spectrometer. It can be used to perform various qualitative and quantitative assays involving DNA and RNA. The software has a thin client UI implemented in C# and a server implemented in Chez Scheme with an embedding of Erlang's concurrency model and some of the OTP framework. It also implements a web server that presents data and visualizations for diagnostics and debugging and also supports fast prototyping of UI's. There are three key advantages of this approach: 1. For a medical device, the primary concern is safety. In a highly concurrent environment where patient results are critical, the message passing paradigm of Erlang avoids the pitfalls of the standard lock and shared memory model. As far we know, we are the only group using functional programming for a high level of concern medical device for submission to the FDA. 2. To support development of assays by engineers and scientists, the software extends the Scheme programming language with domain-specific constructs using the hygienic macro system. 3. The web pages provide a cross-platform, remote enabled and extensible way of adding diagnostics and debugging. There are several challenging aspects of this development: dealing with non-determinism, designing the process breakdown and supervision hierarchy, and error handling and recovery especially when controlling hardware. This is a very large and ambitious project and we have learned a lot while developing this software. We would like to share our experience with the wider functional programming community and learn something new in the process.

Vishesh Panchal

got his Master's in Computer Science from Indiana University in 2006. Since then he has worked at Beckman Coulter, where he has developed software for laboratory automation.

Bob Burger

got his PhD in programming languages from Indiana University in 1997. Since then he has worked at Beckman Coulter, where he uses a multi-paradigm, linguistic approach to solving problems using Scheme.