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Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and Packing Sourcer

Making the Switch

A recent study, conducted in 2014 by The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, reveals a growing uptake of robotic technology in primary pharmaceutical applications. Based on 100 interviews with US manufacturers, original equipment manufacturers, integrators, industry suppliers and experts, the research highlights that 34% of respondents expect a rise in the number of primary pharmaceutical packaging operations using robots, compared with just 21% in 2013.

This predicted boost comes off the back of a steady stream of robots already being deployed in dispensing, sorting, kit assembly, machine tending and various packaging-related tasks.

A look at the UK market shows there is still some way to go before this sort of growth is replicated here. The latest statistics from the International Federation of Robotics show that 941 robots were deployed in pharma applications in the US in 2013. This compares to the UK’s deployment of 109 units in the same period, which took the total number of robots being used in the industry to 503.

Much of this can be attributed to a lack of experience in robotic technology. In particular, a nationwide shortage of trained personnel has led many UK companies to misperceive robotic automation as being too complicated, risky and costly to introduce. Furthermore, our own experience indicates that companies willing to move towards a switch to robot automation are often unsure about how to go about it.

Implementing Robots

The recommended steps for gauging the potential of robotic automation and specifying the appropriate solution for each application can be expanded as follows:

Step 1 – Develop Your Solution
A successful robot installation starts with a proper specification. Knowing exactly what you need, and communicating it to a supplier, will avoid problems later on caused by miscommunication or a mismatch between the capability of your system and your requirements.

Foremost at this point will be to clearly define what you want a robot to do and the tolerances you want it to accommodate. Factors to consider include the types of products the robot needs to handle, how long it will operate for, and any special conditions relating to the application itself, such as whether the robot will be used in a sterile environment.

You should also give some idea of where likely improvements in the existing process can be achieved. This should include information about the target efficiency levels you want from the robot, such as precision, speed, wastage reduction or some other target area, which can then be compared to what you are currently achieving.

A valuable first stage in developing a robotic automation solution is to gather any relevant drawings and documentation on the parts being produced or handled, together with basic details of the process itself. This will provide a supplier with an understanding of what you are making and any special requirements regarding handling. Where a product line produces multiple items, this may also include any considerations arising from variations in product shape or packaging.

It can also be helpful to speak to anyone involved with the process that you are seeking to automate. Very often, people’s actions and judgements will introduce nuances into a process that you might not be aware of, which could affect the specification and eventual efficiency of a robotic system.

Once equipped with all this information, a target cycle time can then start to be calculated, which can be used to assist in the overall design of the system.

Step 2 – Create Your Initial Concept Design

Very often, a decision to automate will have been prompted by someone having seen what someone else is doing, either in terms of producing a similar product or operating a process that could be adapted to suit their own requirements. In such cases, it is relatively easy to begin devising a solution from an outline concept based on the desired installation.

Where additional equipment may be needed, or where a different or bespoke solution is required, it is also worth consulting with experts and/or suppliers – such as robot manufacturers or system integrators – that can advise on the best way to overcome a specific problem. These organisations can often use their experience to recommend the best way to tackle a given issue or to point to similar applications in other industries.

In the context of pharmaceutical production, this might apply, for example, to vision systems for inspection and serialisation, or endof- arm tooling – where a specific type of attachment may be needed to handle a particular product. By approaching specialist suppliers with a good track record in these areas, it is often possible to get a better idea of any additional factors that may need to be considered at the design stage.

Step 3 – Safety and Control

Safety is a vital area that must be taken into account at the earliest possible point. Selection of safety equipment will vary based on factors such as the risk involved in the process, the proximity of manual workers, and any requirements for worker/robot collaboration.

Traditionally, the need to protect workers against the risk of collision with a robot in full motion has meant incorporating extensive guarding and other safety features into an installation.

Recent developments in robot control technology have introduced new possibilities for operators to work alongside robots, without the need for extensive guarding. ABB’s SafeMove, for example,uses electronic motion detection and prevention measures, which can be reconfigured if required. In the event of an unanticipated obstacle being detected, the technology automatically brings the robot to an instant stop. In this way, operators now have greater freedom to collaborate with a robot, allowing them to interrupt the machine to perform tasks like checking, adding or removing samples.

By reducing the requirement for conventional guarding equipment, advances such as these can help to cut both the cost of an installation and the overall footprint – ideal for laboratories and other locations where space is at a premium.

Another point to consider is the type of control equipment that will be used to manipulate the robot. Many manufacturers offer application software packages that greatly simplify the process of installing and configuring a robot, thereby removing much of the complexity and risk at the set-up stage.

Developments in human machine interface (HMI) and integration technology are also opening up new methods for robot operation. Many robot controllers feature their own easy-to-use HMIs, either built into the controller itself or using hand-held teach pendants, which allow even inexperienced operators to easily program and configure a robot.

Results in large-scale applications can be achieved too, through a programmable logic controller communicating with the robot controller – this can simplify configuration where there may be a large amount of peripheral equipment that needs to be integrated with one or more robots.

Step 4 – Testing and Simulation
A lingering concern when it comes to robotic automation is the perceived disruption caused by testing and commissioning a robot on the factory floor. This worry can be addressed by using offline programing and simulation tools, which allow installations to be created and fully tested in a virtual environment before they are put into action. These tools can be either kinematic, where just the robot or robot cell is modelled, or discrete, where a robot can be shown as part of a complete production process.

Using this software to simulate and test your proposed concept, either at the robot or plant level, will enable you to see whether it works or can be refined further.

Step 5 – Refine the Concept
Conducting the steps detailed above should help confirm the efficiency of the robot installation and determine if any further refinements need to be made. Using the information gathered, it should be possible to begin calculating potential cost savings, which in turn can be used to derive a likely return on investment (ROI) figure that can be presented to your finance department.

To achieve the best possible ROI, it is important to factor in all possible cost improvements. As well as direct benefits arising from elements such as increased production throughput and reduced wastage and labour, consideration should be given to non-obvious areas. As a means of handling heavy payloads, for example, robots can reduce the risk of injury to workers, minimising the risk of injury-related compensation. Energy savings can also be achieved both by the ability of robots to work in unlit and unheated areas, and to achieve right-first-time production, which eliminates the extra energy incurred in correcting substandard product.

A key factor to bear in mind before finalising your concept is the need to cope with any future changes. Wherever possible, it is advisable to add in re-configurability at the outset, which will help to provide the flexibility to accommodate additional amends and include extra tasks if required. This may involve considering hardware such as exchangeable end-of-arm tooling, or the latest software or controller that can be used to quickly switch between programs to handle new processes.

Building in extra flexibility will almost certainly push up the cost of the installation. However, it may be better to spend a bit extra at the outset to achieve added flexibility, than to incur the expense of carrying out modifications at a later date to shoehorn changes in.

Moving Ahead

As with all things, it pays to consult multiple suppliers before making your choice. Things to look for include price, capability and reputation, together with a proven track record of supplying solutions for your type of application.

A reputable supplier should also be able to aid you in complying with legal requirements relating to the robot. An example is CE marking, which stipulates a complete process for certifying a product as fit for use for a given application.

The ability of modern industrial robots to achieve the high levels of quality and minimal wastage demanded in pharmaceutical production processes is well-proven. For those companies looking to translate these benefits into their own processes, following the steps outlined here should help to provide a useful starting point in putting together a justification for a switch to robotic automation.

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Mike Wilson is a wellknown figure in the world of automation and has over 30 years of experience in industrial automation, encompassing robots and other types of automated machinery – both as a user and supplier. As well as being ABB’s General Industry Sales Manager for the UK and Ireland, Mike is also involved with several of the leading UK bodies in industrial automation, including the British Automation and Robot Association, and the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association. He served as Chairman of the International Federation of Robotics between 2000 and 2003, and was the only Chairman to have ever been elected for two consecutive terms.
Mike Wilson
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