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Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and Packing Sourcer

Automatic Future

Manufacturing can be greatly assisted by robotics in all applications, and with the costs of systems falling, the incentive is there for the pharmaceutical sector to adopt new automatic solutions

Since the recession of 2008-2009, manufacturing companies across the globe have been signifi cantly increasing their use of automation as a means to ensure they are competitive in world markets. Robot sales worldwide grew by 92 per cent in 2010 to reach almost record levels. Major markets included Japan, North America and Germany as expected, but the most signifi cant growth was achieved in Korea and China. China, despite its low wages, is now installing more robots per year than any other country in Europe, including Germany.

Those companies installing automation systems, including robot and vision technologies, are reaping the benefi ts of improved productivity. This has been achieved by increasing utilisation of both manpower and other machines, improving quality by ensuring consistent output and reduced waste and rework, quickening customer response by the use of fl exible automation systems able to adapt to changing customer demands, and also enhancing employee performance by the automation of hazardous, arduous or highly repetitive jobs. This has also led to reduced costs, improved competitiveness and greater profi tability, driving business growth and subsequently creating employment.

Benefits of Automation in the UK

Automation not only improves production reliability but it also enhances traceability. It is a relatively simple task to track products through production and also maintain appropriate records. Vision systems, as well as assisting the handling automation, are also very effective as quality control tools performing with much greater accuracy at higher speeds than can be achieved manually.

The UK is strong at product innovation and has developed efficient manufacturing processes. However, we are poor at investment in advanced manufacturing technologies. We have too many manufacturing companies struggling with old and inefficient equipment. For example, the robot density (number of robots per 10,000 employees) in the UK, in all sectors outside of automotive, is 27. In comparison Germany has 134, Sweden 118, Italy 114, Spain 57 and France 56 (1).

Unless our manufacturing companies implement advanced manufacturing systems, we will find it increasingly difficult to compete in the future.

There is one benefit to our current position; the technologies, particularly robotics and vision, are well-developed and proven and solutions for many of the manufacturing problems that exist, and are already in operation. Therefore we do not have to lead the development, with the associated risk and cost of automation solutions. We can select appropriate solutions from proven applications.

Robot Applications

High speed dedicated automation systems are in widespread use for pharmaceutical production, but these require no flexibility. Robots are often used in packing operations which require greater dexterity and flexibility. Vision systems are often used to guide these robots and also provide quality checking at the same time. In laboratories, for drug discovery and testing, robots are used to perform many repetitive operations, both relieving the technicians from these tasks and increasing the speed and reliability of testing.

The primary packing of contact lenses is difficult to perform manually. This would require operators equipped with eye glasses picking individual lenses from water baths using tweezers to place the lenses into blister packs. This application has been automated using vision to identify the position of the lenses, which are held in trays. Robots then pick the lenses, at high speed, using a special, vacuum based gripper tool, and place them in the blister packs. A further vision checks each blister pack to ensure a lens is correctly placed in each blister. The system is able to operate much faster and more reliably than the previous manual operation.

Robots are also, due to their inherent dexterity, an excellent tool for the polishing of orthopaedic implants, such as knee and hip joints. The consistency of the robot allows the use of more effectively abrasive materials which results in significantly enhanced productivity. Manually it can take 45 to 90 minutes to hand polish and buff a hip implant, whereas a robot system can complete the same part within eight minutes.

The most significant problem within UK manufacturing lies in the lack of knowledge regarding automation, particularly regarding what competitors are doing as well as an incomplete understanding of the benefits automation brings. There is often a perceived risk, but the result of doing nothing is certain: decreasing business due to a growing reduction in competitiveness.

The more forward-thinking UK companies have already applied automation solutions. There are many examples of successful businesses in the UK that have made automation a cornerstone of their manufacturing strategies. These range from very small companies producing low cost items such as fridge magnets to larger companies making high quality, electrical connectors. Automation is in use across all sectors from construction materials through to food. However, there are many more companies who should be looking to use appropriate automation.

Progress in Automation

There are still challenges applying even proven automation solutions. There is a lack of expertise within our businesses to conceive and specify what is required. We also apply short payback criteria which can often kill projects. With the right justification, taking account of all the benefits and potential savings, these projects could go ahead. The savings come from many sources; increased yield, reduced waste, reduced work in progress, improved energy utilisation, reduced floor space and reduced employee turnover. The cost of automation is also decreasing where most other costs continue to rise. It should also be noted that automation equipment can provide consistent performance for many years, often well past the original payback period.

To address these challenges the British Automation and Robot Association, with the support of the UK Government, has recently launched the Automating Manufacturing Programme. This twoyear programme will provide a series of events, which commenced at the PPMA Show at Birmingham’s NEC, to increase the awareness of the benefits of automation. In addition, impartial expert support is available to visit manufacturers to identify opportunities for automation, and work with the client to develop appropriate concepts and specifications. This subsidised support will help manufacturers make the first steps towards the implementation of successful automation solutions.

This is an excellent opportunity for UK manufacturers to investigate the benefits of automation and ensure we remain at the forefront of advanced manufacturing technologies across Europe.


  1. World Robotics 2011

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Mike Wilson is Chairman of the British Automation and Robot Association. Having graduated with a BSc in Engineering Science from Warwick University in 1981, Mike went on to take a Master’s in Industrial Robot Systems at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire. Following on from his studies, Mike quickly found employment as an Engineer at Rover Group where he remained for six years. This was followed by spells at Yaskawa and Fanuc Robotics. In 1996 he became the Managing Director for Meta Vision Systems Ltd, a leading manufacturer of laser vision systems for welding applications worldwide. Mike currently owns Creative Automation Solutions Ltd, is joint owner of Automation Advisory Service Ltd and is one of the Directors of the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association. Email:
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