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Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and Packing Sourcer

A Welcome Rebellion

Robots in the pharmaceutical industry now offer particularly effective solutions in the automated packing line, and are also more energy efficient than ever before.

The word ‘robot’ was first introduced to the English vocabulary in 1920 by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots. The play, which depicted the rebellion of humanoid robots in a factory, fuelled the imagination of a generation of sci-fi writers. Since then, ‘robot’ has been used to describe a device that automatically performs complicated and often repetitive tasks. Today’s industrial robots are common in all areas of pharmaceutical manufacturing and packaging, but their shape and abilities are very different from Capek’s humanoids.

Endowed with various dexterities and capabilities, robots play an important role in communicating with pharmaceutical traceability systems and software. The ability to move with dexterity and speed, while increasing safety, make industrial robots indispensible on packaging lines and pharmaceutical manufacturing systems.

Light-weight, quick and flexible, robots are well-suited for the pick and place and assembly work in a pharmaceutical environment. Vision technology allows them to put together customised orders and complete tasks such as high precision assembling of diabetes kits.

Robots in Laboratory Environments

The role of industrial robots is not limited to packaging; they are especially useful for drug discovery tasks, such as packaging and handling test tubes.

Cleanroom technologies enable the production and handling of crucial life saving remedies, without the risk of tampering or contamination. However, in pharmaceutical cleanrooms, it is generally acknowledged that the human body is the greatest source of contamination. By contrast, robots are guaranteed to produce a sterile product, as a result of the IP67 options that are now common.

Furthermore, most robots are designed to prevent contamination in one of two ways: by incorporating systems that are directly connected to the robot’s joints to keep particles away from the process or by using a brushless-motor design featuring components that roll instead of scrape together generating no carbon dust. Not only do robots significantly improve the cleanliness of a laboratory environment and protect drugs from contamination, but they also shield humans from potential harmful products or processes.

Pharmaceutical R&D

In medical and pharmaceutical research, development requires strenuous, repetitive tasks, which need to be handled in absolutely identical ways on every occasion. A good research experiment with a high degree of accuracy involves a large amount of samples.

This becomes a major problem for researchers who cannot simultaneously monitor and test the sample manually. In contrast, while performing research tasks, robots can also collect data which is automatically condensed and organised, saving researchers’ time. The advent of high-accuracy, high-resolution vision technology has enabled safe, reliable product inspection as well as advanced test protocols.

However, clinical microbiology laboratories have largely been bypassed by the advances in automation that have benefitted other areas of the clinical laboratory in recent years. Continuously monitoring blood culture systems, automated microbial identification and susceptibility testing systems are widely used. However, specimen processing and culture workup specifically remain manual tasks and few changes to the methods used to perform these tasks have been made in the recent years.

It was against this background that the walk away specimen processor (WASP) was developed. This revolutionary liquid based microbiology approach automates the entire task of sample processing, thus streamlining operations. The WASP automatically decaps, plants and streaks culture plates, inoculates broth media, prepares gram slides and recaps specimens in seconds.

The WASP has a throughput capacity equivalent to at least two or three full-time people, which allows labs to expand their volume potential. The machine can give laboratory staff the freedom to carry out more valuable tasks. WASP is also designed to work on a 24/7 basis, making the instrument extremely cost efficient.

Flexibility from A to Z

Packaging and pick and place applications have also seen the benefit of using automation, notably in improvements in assembly, palletising and shipping. Modular robots which come in one, two, three or four axes of movement provide flexibility and can be configured by the user depending on the application they are going to serve. Thus, the actual structure of the axes can cover a simple linear movement, the XY plain, XZ plain, or even work on XYZC coordinates, where C is rotation.

The flexibility of a robotic system is especially useful in packaging applications; placing primary cartons in a case, and loading the case onto a pallet for instance. This is particularly beneficial if a company makes multiple products or different product package configurations on a single production line. For example, if a company makes 60-count containers of tablets and must add to the line to a 300-count container as well, then a robot would be able to handle both package configurations on the line. In addition, various primary packaging configurations can also be handled this way.

The great majority of four axes robot are ideal for primary packaging applications where high speed of handling of a payload of up to 5kg is required. Equally, pick and place of capsules and blister palletising usually employ some form of robot.

If damage, contamination or bar code errors have occurred, the robot automatically knows to count it as waste and remove it from the line. This leads to precise inventory and prevention of expensive traceability faults. This becomes very useful when a single production line consists of multiple products or different packaging designs.

Demand for robotics in packaging has been increasing because retailers want different options when it comes to packaging configuration, not just large pill bottles, but small-count, easy-touse configurations. Also, companies are now implementing track-and-trace capabilities in order to comply with legal requirements. Robotic systems are programmed to read bar code scans which enable them to know exactly what to do with each product. Since human nature is prone to mistakes and accidents, removing them from this operation produces an error-free process.

SCARA robots are also highly flexible, fast and have the potential for high payloads, making them ideal for fast pick and place and manipulation of product. For heavier demands or larger work envelopes, there are six-axis machines that are both inexpensive and easy to programme. Finally, for bespoke complex handling requirements, there are modular gantry-type machines that can be configured to suit any application.

Considered to be some of the most reliable machines on the market, SCARA robots usually feature an integral vision system. It’s my belief that, in crucial packaging applications where speed is required, this type of automation is the best option.

The Golden Triangle: Reliability, Traceability, Compliance

As well as flexibility, another key aspect of the pharma industry is reliability – making sure every stage of the manufacturing process is monitored and recorded is a process strictly governed by the FDA. Industrial robots make it easier for pharmaceutical companies to comply with these requirements. Robots also minimise accidents and wasted material, which sends savings straight to the bottom line.

For instance, bar code readers can communicate with robots through human machine interfaces (HMIs), industrial PCs and PLCs. This process provides information which helps the robot respond to its environment. For instance, if the robot is manufacturing capsules or packaging that have suffered damage, this will be picked up by the robot, which in turn will reject the item and remove it from the line, so that the problem doesn’t continue through to other processes.

For example, very high speed SCARA robots, used in end-of-line packing, play an important role in activities that require high dexterity assembly. Putting product into vacuum packs, applying seals, assembling tubes or drop dispensers or screwing caps onto bottles are just a few of the tasks these robots can undertake.

Cost Saving and Eco-Friendly

Many types of automation cannot be modified easily and are limited to particular products or processes. These machines may lose their utility if a given product is discontinued, but robots can be retooled and reprogrammed for new applications. This is highly beneficial from a financial perspective and can lead to significant savings.

Product variability can be greatly reduced through the use of robotics, because they perform exactly the same way every time. This repeatability can lower the pharmaceutical industry’s cost per item and improve product quality. If a robot is equipped with machine vision, it can provide 100 per cent process verification and error recovery for high uptime.

From an environmental perspective, robots can reduce wastage and the associated costs of scrap disposal. It’s a misconception that robots use a lot of resources; today’s machines are energy-savvy. For instance, at this year’s Automatica Trade Fair in Munich, a new range of SCARA robots were on show – models which satisfy the growing demand for affordable, flexible automation in a variety of applications. Certain models now available are 50 per cent lighter than others of their kind and their power consumption is 60 per cent less lower.

The aim of these new machines is to achieve low mass and low inertia with the necessary rigidity from which high accuracy is attained. The reduction in mass can be attained through the use of lightweight cast aluminium mechanical components. However, rigidity has not been compromised by the use of these lightweight components; due to a series of ribbed sections, the machine can maintain its robustness. As a result, smaller servo motors are fitted. Moreover, because the lightweight system generates substantially less inertia, a simplified gearbox can be used.

These eco-friendly machines are ideal for slower yet cost-effective parts handling systems. Easy to programme, energy efficient and cost effective, the latest robots can contribute to a lower manufacturing cost by reducing energy expenditure, particularly as part of a planned energy management scheme.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Evidently SCARA and Cartesian robots have their own parts to play in the pharmaceutical industry. However, small six-axis robots have also been successfully used in complex applications such as handling parts for a machine which tests the dosage in asthma inhalers.

Pharmaceutical aerosols are often constrained in scope, due to registration and patent issues. This has resulted in many different formulations, components and filling techniques which are under constant development.

In this application, the robotic arm depalletises a tray, picks up a capsule from a pallet and places it on the pressure tester. After that, it is picked up from the tester and either placed on the conveyor belt or in the reject bin if the pressure isn’t up to the required standard. The robot knows that the pressure of the capsule has to be constant in order to pass. If the pressure is outside prescribed limits, the robot acts accordingly and removes the faulty product from manufacture.

The Future of Automation in Pharma

In 2012, global robot sales increased by 37 per cent, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). Against the backdrop of an economic crisis, the figure is even more impressive. China, the US and Germany continue to lead in numbers when it comes to the implementation of industrial robotics.

Manufacturing in the UK is slowly catching up according to the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA). Sales of industrial robots in the UK during the first quarter of 2012 were higher than those in any previous quarter and larger than the annual total for some previous years.

So what does this mean for the future of the pharma sector? The increasing uptake in robotics translates to better products, more accurate data and rigorous audits. Ultimately, it testifies to the pharma industry’s hopes and ambitions for the future – better and cheaper drugs that can quickly reach those in need. But there’s no need to worry about a rebellion of humanoid robots in manufacturing plants; unlike Rossum’s Universal Robots, they are a welcome rebellion that helps manufacturers cut costs and deliver safer products to the market.

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Nigel Smith began work at Toshiba International Europe Limited in the UK in 1986. He completed his MBA while working for the UK business, developing expertise in robot and PLC technology. When Toshiba Corporation restructured its supply chain into Europe, Nigel established TM Robotics (Europe) Ltd to act as the European partner for the Japanese corporation’s robot sales in the region. He has written on the subject of robotics for magazines including Automation, Engineering, Food Processing and The Engineer.
Nigel Smith
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