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Automation Advances

PMPS: Where do robots fit into the pharma industry today?

Bob Lloyd: Robots are a good fit for pharma: in production, where the possibilities for environmental modification that robotics bring are only just being realised; in testing laboratories, where the repeatability and reliability permits flexible and speedy, yet consistent, results; and in handling, where robots can eliminate many of the manual tasks associated with packing, palletising and logistics.

For example, the Wellcome Trust, Sanger Centre, exploited many robot features effectively on the Human Genome project, where only robots could process the vast number of different samples and tests required to map the Genome in a reasonable timescale, without stopping during 24-7 production testing.

How successfully do you think companies are implementing robotics into their existing processes?

The answer to this, from a robot engineer’s view, is not very. The British Automation and Robot Association’s figures suggest that only 43 robots were sold into pharma applications in 2012. In the first six months of 2013, 26 have been sold, so it looks like the industry will take about the same number this year too. Given the size of the market in the UK, this is not particularly extensive penetration and reflects the conservative nature of the business. In Asia, many more robots are now entering the industry – Kawasaki has just launched new robot designs specifically to meet the market demand.

However, in my experience, the robot is only a small part of any automation investment and, to take test labs as an example, it has to seamlessly integrate with other elements, such as the laboratory information management system. It is no coincidence, therefore, that automation companies which are successful in this space are quickly snapped up by the established pharma suppliers; witness CRS of Canada being purchased by Thermo Scientific, and RTS Life Sciences becoming part of Brooks Automation.

What could pharma companies do better?

New, more human arm-like designs of robots are becoming available, which allow existing lab equipment to be retained when automating. Perhaps this technical change will open up better business cases in pharma. I think that ‘doing better’ is more about fitting the technology, market and financial requirements together, rather than some magic technology. I hope that features like this will help that cause.

What attracted you to the robotics industry?

I have had a varied career to date and the strap-line of my first robot company was ‘Universal Automation’, so the attraction for me is both the technology and the diverse nature of the business. I have been privileged to work on many different projects, but my first experience of pharma was programming a demo of a robot washing serum around in vials for a drug manufacturing project. I was amazed that such a simple application – in robotics terms at least – could have such a profound effect on the yield and, therefore, the effectiveness of the final drug. The project went on to spawn a very successful spin-off company and, in my view, demonstrates the power the two disciplines can have when working effectively together.

What part of your role is the most challenging?

Developing the business case is the most difficult part of my role. It involves challenging the status quo and given assumptions. Many think robots are used pretty much exclusively in automotive, but Kawasaki’s biggest market for robots is the semi-conductor industry. Semiconductors require clean, agile, fast and flexible machines, and robots fit the bill perfectly. If robots can deliver in that arena, then many more pharma applications could also benefit.

In my experience, most pharma projects are driven by the process requirements, Good Automated Manufacturing Practice, or compliance issues – we just need to work together more to develop better business cases and applications.

What have been your proudest moments?

On a professional front, I have experienced many proud moments. Programming my first welding cell – the feeling I had when I got the robot to do my bidding still lingers. Having the honour of being Chairman of the British Robotics Association – twice. Building my own robot controller for my degree project and being part of the National Advanced Robotics Research Centre. While there, as well as presenting Prince Phillip with a gift by robot, we took robots to the House of Lords, and I remember overhearing a conversation between two Peers over lunch; one said to the other: “I thought we were coming to see a presentation on Advanced Aerobics, not Advanced Robotics!” We obviously still have a long way to go.

What would you like 2014 to bring?

Hopefully, 2014 will show significant headway in the take-up of robots in pharma, especially in ‘high care’ areas of production. Having new, specifically crafted machines should help, and if we can develop robust business cases and ensure a simple job is well done, then we should all benefit.

Where do you see the industry heading over the next decade?

I see the use of robots in pharma and biotech labs expanding – currently, to effectively automate, you must have a ‘track’ that moves your samples between instruments, and this is a big cost barrier. We may now have robots integrated onto vehicles, enabling samples to be moved between instruments, but most labs were designed around ‘workbench’ principles, so this usually still means purchasing new instruments to get the best from your system.

Again, more arm-like robots, that have comparable dexterity to human arms, means that existing instruments can now be automated, with the robot mimicking exactly the lab technician’s movements. This brings down the cost significantly, and when you also throw in that the environment can be modified to suit the product, or cleaning can be accomplished with significantly more effective noxious chemicals than would be possible when using human operators, the possibilities for a step change in thinking begin to emerge.

If biotech and pharma companies in Europe can also help to focus this new robot technology, as businesses are starting to do in Asia, then I am sure the next 10 years will be an exciting and productive time.


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