By Tom Egan, Vice President of Industry Services, PMMI
Once limited to palletizing operations, robots are now deployed for sophisticated applications in pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing.
There is a quiet revolution taking place in global manufacturing today, and nowhere is it more evident than in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. According to a market report issued by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, the use of robots in a number of industries has more than tripled in the past five years.
The pharmaceutical and medical device markets report a particularly striking increase in their use of robotics: By 2018, robots are projected to be used for 27 percent of primary packaging for medical devices, compared to just three percent in 2013. For pharmaceuticals, robots are expected to handle 34 percent of primary packaging operations, up from 21 percent in 2013.
The business case for utilizing robotics in manufacturing is abundantly clear and has been for years. Robots can pick and place products repetitively and nearly flawlessly for 24-hour shifts without interruption. This limits the risk of human error and injury, helps to improve product safety, and enables companies to reallocate labor resources to enhance productivity.
Since the introduction of robotics into the global manufacturing marketplace, they have been viewed as the heavy lifters at the end of the line, most often relegated to palletizing operations. However, as the technology proves capable of increasingly complicated tasks, today’s robotics are moving up the line in the pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing environments.
The shift from end-of-line operations to primary and secondary packaging duties is contributing to the huge growth in their use. Perhaps the most significant advances are to end-effector designs, i.e., end-of-arm-tooling (EOAT). These are the claws, grippers, pinchers, magnets, vacuums, and suction devices at the end of a robot’s arms. By increasing EOAT versatility and flexibility, robots are able to take on more precise and sophisticated processing operations. A robot’s brute strength, so useful for palletizing crates of products, can now be harnessed to handle small and delicate objects for tasks, such as picking and placing small pharmaceutical tablets without damaging products.
Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and integrators work closely with manufacturers to customize EOAT capabilities, such as application-specific grippers and hybrid tooling, and creating end-effectors that are increasingly easy to connect and disconnect. These advances are creating a new generation of anthropomorphic end-effectors, which have expanded the utility of robotics to a much wider range of applications.
As a result, small- and medium-sized companies that once thought robotics either out of reach or not applicable for their operations are now reconsidering them in light of quick changeovers, time saved, and greater productivity.
Better Vision, Greater Control
Sophisticated vision systems enable robots to recognize shapes and images and to identify objects in random patterns so that they can be placed in proper orientation. Pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers have been using vision systems for years to identify product defects and to implement track-and-trace coding. These heavily regulated industries must comply with e-pedigree laws and serialization efforts that require drug packages to have unique serial numbers that can be linked to secondary packaging cartons as they work their way from production to end-users.
Color imaging to replace standard gray scale imaging in vision systems is becoming increasingly popular. Color allows robots to decipher differences in items of identical shape and size, which is particularly valuable for pharmaceutical applications. Bottle caps, tablets, and containers can be more easily recognized, as well as color-coded packages.
Programming robots has also become easier, with seamless integration enabled by PLC platforms and remote monitoring via VPN connections. In fact, the PMMI study referenced earlier notes that 45 percent of endusers say robotics programming has gotten less complicated.
Improvements to Human Machine Interface (HMI) platforms have enabled a higher level of programming, while simultaneously making robotics control more intuitive. HMI improvements are enabling robots to become more sophisticated, yet easier to use. This reduces the learning curve for operators, and ultimately improves manufacturing productivity. As the workforce becomes more global and training costs escalate, making operations intuitive yields a big return on investment.
Tracking the Robotics Trend
For pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers seeking the latest advancements in robotics, Pharma EXPO 2014 (Nov. 2–5; McCormick Place, Chicago) will provide a wide range of technologies and insights for implementing these solutions up and down the line. Co-located with PACK EXPO International 2014, the event is jointly produced by PMMI and the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE). Pharma EXPO will present innovations for the entire pharmaceutical processing and packaging supply chain with ISPE’s world-class educational conference. Attendees will also have access to the PACK EXPO International show floor. Together, the two shows will draw more than 50,000 attendees and over 2,000 exhibitors to 1.1 million net square feet of exhibit space.
To register for Pharma EXPO, visit pharmaexpo.com.
PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, is a trade association representing over 600 packaging and processing supply chain companies that provide a full range of packaging and processing machinery, materials, components and containers. PMMI actively brings buyers and sellers together through programs and events such as The PACK EXPO family of trade shows, packexpo.com, PMT Magazine, PACK EXPO Show Daily, networking events and educational programs.
PMMI organizes the PACK EXPO trade shows: PACK EXPO International, Pharma EXPO, co-located with PACK EXPO International and presented jointly with the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE); PACK EXPO Las Vegas, PACK EXPO East, EXPO PACK México and EXPO PACK Guadalajara, connecting participants in the packaging and processing supply chain with their customers around the world. Coming Up: EXPO PACK México 2014, June 17-20 (Mexico City, Mexico); PACK EXPO International 2014, Nov. 2-5 (McCormick Place, Chicago); Pharma EXPO, co-located with PACK EXPO International 2014; PACK EXPO East, debuting Feb. 16–18, 2015 (Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia); EXPO PACK Guadalajara 2015, March 10-12, 2015 (Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico).
Learn more about PMMI and the PACK EXPO trade shows at PMMI.org and Packexpo.com.
 Source: Trends in Robotics-Market Assessment 2014, PMMI, Feb. 2014, p. 8.
 Source: Anandan, T. "Latest Trends in Intelligent Robot End-of-Arm Tooling," Robotics Online, Aug. 8, 2013. http://www.robotics.org/content-detail.cfm/Industrial-Robotics-Featured-Articles/Latest-Trends-in-Intelligent-Robot-End-of-Arm-Tooling/content_id/4253
 PMMI report, p. 3.