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Cobots - a cutting edge to packaging in pharma industry
Pradeep David | Wednesday, May 16, 2018, 08:00 Hrs  [IST]

All industrial processing systems have turned to automation that is driven by the need for high accuracy, precision and performance of industrial processes, in the past couple of decades. Technological advancements in today’s day and age have taken the use of automated machines and robotics one step forward. The application of robotics and automation has been successfully achieved in a wide range of industries dealing with well-defined processes and products like the manufacturing industry, FMCG, automotive industry, the healthcare industry, pharmaceuticals industry, to name a few.

The pharmaceutical industry has been setting the trends for the broader packaging industry for many years, due to the strict safety and quality requirements set for products. With such a wide variety of products and packaging required it’s no surprise that the best practices of the pharmaceutical industry have often trickled down into packaging standards for food, beverage, and cosmetic products as well.

Packaging pharma products has become an increasingly complex business as the products themselves and the requirements surrounding them change and evolve. Depending on the product, the variety of equipment capabilities needed is wide-ranging. Innovative packaging designs and new materials, serialization requirements, sensitive products, large- and small-scale projects, are impacting equipment designs and the packaging process.

Incorporating views from both packaging equipment suppliers and contract packagers, trends in the space are dominated by increased automation, serialization needs, and the flexibility to accommodate the nuances today’s pharma products present.

The pharmaceutical industry is under continuous pressure to discover and develop new drugs targeted toward increasingly complex diseases, which means the industry must use innovative technologies that will help them ramp up research and development, manufacturing and analytical capabilities while enabling them to be competitive and compliant. It also uses the most advanced technology in its packaging. Robotic automation is more pronounced in the pharmaceutical industry than any other, primarily due to the increased production capabilities and lowered risk of contamination.

An increase in the use of robots is particularly significant in dispensing, sorting, kit assembly and light machine-tending. The advantages include greater speed and accuracy, more flexibility and more reliability. Another area of increased usage of automation is the use of robots to move biological or chemical samples around to synthesize chemistries or to test pharmaceutical value of existing molecules. Laboratory processes are well suited for robotic automation as the processes are composed of repetitive movements and demand precision.

Automation is also seeing growing usage in working environments which involve handling of hazardous compounds. With support from technologically advanced and innovative partners, the pharma industry can shift gears and boost their efficiency and productivity throughout product life cycle.  Automation also helps completion of each task more efficient, precise of higher quality, and makes mass production easier.
At the production and packaging level, pharma companies are leveraging advanced technologies and automation to address challenges such as sample under fill and overfill, detect metal contaminants and other dense foreign objects on the production line. Such solutions help them address the above issues on a running batch, thus reducing their downtime and help protect their brand image.

As the use of the robotics in the pharmaceutical industry increases rapidly, it is important to consider the benefits of the latest technologies for manufacturers, researchers and scientists.

The latest packaging equipment increasingly incorporates robotics, an area that according to equipment manufacturers, is gaining momentum in the industry. Additionally, more equipment is likely to be equipped with advanced programmes to enable communication with other equipment on the packaging line.

Product packaging is seeing a surge of new materials aimed at patient adherence/compliance, child safety, convenience packaging, as well as green materials, all of which affect equipment solutions and production lines. As these trends expand in the industry, equipment manufacturers and packagers must make adjustments to accommodate them.

The human workforce is not particularly reliable for monotonic and repetitive work where accuracy is of utmost importance, as they are prone to make errors. It has been cited as a primary cause of quality issues leading to batch recalls. This would be better handled by an automatic case-packer or robot, even though the original investment cost is naturally higher.

With this idea of higher production rate, the need for accuracy and for human interaction with machine automation, the collaborative robots were first developed in 2008 by Universal Robots. Their latest technological advancement in collaborative robots or ‘Co-bots’ was brought out in the international market with a peculiar intention which is in line with Industrial 4.0; which is in sync with the automated revolution in various industries. The human-robot collaboration is different from traditional robots. The idea is for humans and robots to be inter-dependent and achieve what each of them does best. There are few things that must be done manually, whereas the accuracy, precision and mass production at higher efficiency is taken care of by the robots.

The Universal Robots robotic arms are lightweight, space-saving and easy to re-deploy to multiple applications without changing your production layout. It is fast and easy to move the robot to a new process – this gives you the agility to automate almost any task – including those with small batches or fast change-over in pharma production and its packaging. Automated packaging, case-packing and palletising can protect the drugs from deliberate harm, at manufacturer's site as well as in logistics and repackaging.

Universal Robots also believes in giving back to the employees and thus, collaborative robots function as a helping hand to the workforce and not a replacement. Cobots function to increase the productivity of the workforce as they are accessible and easy to use, the employees too, are excited to work side by side with their robotic co-workers increasing efficiency along with the quality and quantity of production.

Medication errors are a major problem in hospitals, when nurses struggle with similar-looking pills they distribute to their patients day and night. Automated medicine cabinets and barcode readers can be used to prevent wrong medicines being applied or wrong patients being treated. This reduces the possibilities of human error reduces also the stress of the overstretched hospital personnel.

The automation solution business in the pharmaceutical manufacturing and packaging industry in India is predominantly a highly cost competitive market. By adopting automation solutions, the industry aims to achieve productivity, quality consistency and flexibility of the processes and reduced time to market, while meeting safety and compliance requirements. Hence, it has become pertinent for the industry to provide an optimum solution in terms of automation solution offerings and value addition.

The pharmaceutical industry is changing at a rapid pace with a lot of trends and business relationships. This not only involves new medical developments, guidelines and corresponding equipment, but also the roles of all stakeholders. Technology is moving at a rapid pace, creating new fields and disrupting existing models and processes, and pharmaceutical industry is no stranger to this. Increasing use of innovative solutions and automation will drive the future of this industry and help to accelerate discovery, enhance productivity and enable regulatory compliance.

(Author is general manager, Universal Robots – South Asia region)

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