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Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and Packing Sourcer

A Helping Hand

The future certainly looks bright for robots in the pharmaceutical sector. They have already found their way into packaging systems and, as the industry becomes more comfortable with robot technology and begins to integrate it into legacy systems, new applications are now starting to be found throughout the manufacturing process.

Mirroring many other industry requirements today, pharma needs to be able to ensure that its packaging solutions are reliable and effective, and that the valuable product is protected throughout its journey. The particularly innovative nature of pharma products needs to be equally matched by ingenious packaging variations. This can make the packaging process increasingly complex, not to mention difficult to achieve the required standard and speed using manual labour.

Industry Trends

Having the flexibility to quickly adapt a packaging line to accommodate these developments could prove a key differentiator for success. For this reason, end-users are becoming more receptive to the use of robotic solutions. In the UK, for example, the use of robots in the pharma, healthcare and medical sectors is increasing. According to figures from the British Automation and Robotics Association, no robots were sold into these sectors in 2000. In 2012, however, there was a total of 43 recorded sales. This figure represents an increase of 115 per cent since 2011, and makes it the biggest growth sector for robots between 2011 and 2012, after the automotive sector.

Figures from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) also demonstrate a noticeable increase (1). Global robot deliveries into the chemical, pharma and cosmetics sectors in 2010 totalled 1,468, with Europe accounting for 512 of these. European figures include a mix of articulated, cartesian, articulated parallel (also known as delta robots) and selective compliance articulated robot arm (SCARA) style robots. The main types used in these sectors appear to be articulated arm robots (mostly six-axes) for picking, packaging, handling and palletising. A large number of SCARA robots are used for picking and packaging.

While not currently well-used in the sector, the trend observed in Europe towards the use of delta robots – for high-speed picking of small parts – is growing. Merck, for example, has successfully employed a delta robot on a bottling line to place dispenser caps onto bottled allergy medications. The robot is capable of operating at 120 cycles per second. Ten variants of the bottle can be run on the system and the only robot line change requirement is to select the appropriate program on the robot controller.

Although uptake of robotics in the pharma sector is increasing, it is still slow. This can be attributed to companies continuing to rely on specialised manual labour for picking and packaging operations. Many wrongly believe that a robotic solution would be too costly, and would require too much system integration work and expensive personnel training. A good way to overcome this initial reticence could be to initially introduce robots into areas where working conditions are toughest for human operators – where noise and dust can pose problems, for example, allowing operators to be redeployed in more pleasant working environments.

Pharma Applications

Areas that could gain the most benefit from the introduction of robots are in pick-and-place applications, where products need to be removed from a machine or conveyor and packed into blister packs or boxes. Robots can also offer consistently gentle packaging solutions – including palletising boxes at the end of the line. In such applications, robots are already well-proven – and evidence has shown that they can offer a fast, clean, efficient and cost-effective alternative to manual labour.

A vision solution is vital in many pharma applications to enable inspection, position and orientation capabilities. Where products are picked from conveyors by a robot, the inclusion of vision is essential to ensure fast and precise handling and packaging. Additionally, part location, barcode reading, anti-defect checking and visual quality control can be incorporated to further streamline and accelerate production capabilities. When both software and hardware are integrated, vision capabilities can be further enhanced within an application – particularly when this is included within the robot controller, as no third-party software is needed.

The pharma sector depends on automated process control and quality assurance systems to ensure that every batch is identical to the previous one. In addition, the requirement for pharma packaging to carry identical labels can be streamlined through the use of robot vision and barcode scanners which help speed up throughput, automating the task of comparing the labels on incoming products with an original master copy.

There is also a growing requirement to monitor and record every step of the production process. These traceability requirements – combined with the need for labelling and traceability right down to the individual product – will almost certainly benefit from an automated solution which can ensure accuracy, continuity and reliability.

Meeting Demand

Today’s robot offerings are able to meet demanding pharma requirements. For example, grippers are available that can gently handle a wide range of product formats, such as bags, bottles and tubes. Cleanroom robots are also available to help automate laboratory processes. Robot models have been developed with clean surfaces – for regular disinfection, for example.

In the laboratory environment, robots can now safely replace human operators undertaking sterile manufacturing processes, where there may be a contamination risk. In one lab application, the selected robot was chosen for its reliability and speed, which enabled the creation of a single point handling solution for vial processing. A handling tool was designed and attached to the end of the robot to enable it to handle 10 vials at a time. A variety of components were also placed around the robot cell – including indexing tables for full rack staging, a thermostatically controlled water bath for precise sample temperatures, a retrieval system for dumped vials, a washing-brushing-rinsing-drying station, a preservative spray station and a recapping station.

In applications that require additional components within the cell, robot controllers with numerous arms and axes can be activated from a single central processing unit (CPU), with only the addition of control boxes to house the servo amplifiers and power components. This could allow for the use of more flexible and adaptable servo grippers in place of pneumatic grippers – potentially helping to futureproof gripping requirements. The ability to control additional axes would also allow the robot to be placed on a linear rail, for example, if it needs to cover a wide work envelope, offering a good solution for end-of-line packaging applications.

Recent developments to controller software tools are starting to simplify and standardise the programming, set-up and operation of robots further. Depending on the end-user application, controllers can be supplied with one of several application tools, with a large range of software options available for additional functionality.

Making a cell safe can represent a considerable percentage of the total set-up cost. There are a variety of safety solutions on offer to ensure that all safety requirements are met in a costeffective way, with minimal hardware requirements. Software options can include position and speed check functionality, which allows for the creation of safety zones that the robot is not allowed to enter or leave. Speed limitations are also possible, ensuring that the robot does not exceed a set speed in certain areas of the cell, thus ensuring both product and human safety.

A particularly useful software option is programmable machine control which, in effect, offers an in-built safety programmable logic controller (PLC) solution. Instead of specifying a separate PLC to control the system, this software makes it possible for the controller to manage all the components surrounding the robot – including the safety requirements – helping to simplify control and negate the need for additional hardware, such as PLCs.

A Bright Future

Justification for the use of robots in the pharma industry is wideranging – from better worker safety to improved overall product quality. Speeding up the drug discovery process could be yet another benefit, helping the industry to meet the everincreasing call for new drugs to treat the world’s growing, ageing population. Robots have already been shown to improve productivity and efficiency in many industries, and pharma is now starting to make use of these abilities too.

Reference

1. World Robotics 2011 Industrial Robots, IFR, 2011


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Chris Sumner has been Managing Director of FANUC UK for over 15 years, and Vice President of FANUC Europe Corporation for six. He joined the UK operation as a Service Manager in 1989 and was appointed Engineering Manager prior to taking on his current role. Chris’s career in robotics and automation spans almost 40 years; he started as an apprentice with an electronic firm, gaining an HND in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He has also held roles at BOC Arc Equipment (UK), Cincinnati Milacron (Europe), Meta Vision (US) and ESAB (Sweden), which involved working with various sectors and components.
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