How are robots improving pharmaceutical processing?

By Emily Newton, Editor-in-Chief at Revolutionized

Robots are positively impacting numerous manufacturing industries, especially since they enable increased productivity and fewer errors. Here are some compelling ways that pharmaceutical robots have improved processing in the sector. 

Improving Output During Times of Increased Demand

The COVID-19 pandemic placed pharmaceutical companies in the spotlight and gave them primary roles for helping the world through a crisis. As researchers found effective treatments for the virus, it became crucial to get them to the people who needed them, and do that as fast as possible.

Robots played a central role in helping that happen. In one instance, a pharmaceutical company tasked them with filling, labelling, and inspecting bottles of COVID-19 medicine. The system reportedly fills 50 vials each minute and can run without stopping for 60 minutes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFnhnErwA4w&feature=emb_imp_woyt. A human only steps in to replenish supplies as needed.

The setup can also handle variations, such as different sizes of vials or several fill levels. Thus, the manufacturer could use the same machine for packaging different doses. A pair of scales within the robot weighs each vial before capping it, verifying that each container has the correct amount before the next step in the process begins.

COVID-19 presented a circumstance where pharmaceutical processors needed to meet greater demands in a relatively short timeframe. However, other instances could arise, too, such as if a company takes on a large client with especially stringent requirements. Robots open new opportunities in such cases.

However, company leaders must keep in mind that any efforts to apply robots or any similar new technologies typically will not give the expected results immediately. Instead, it often takes time to show employees how the technology will help them and train them on any process changes.

Setting a strong foundation like that will get everyone well-equipped to embrace and get excited about what’s new rather than feeling overwhelmed by it.

Reducing Contamination to Keep Operations Running Smoothly

Pharmaceutical processing plants must uphold strict procedures to avoid contamination that could slow production. Robots can help meet those requirements. Sometimes, that means using filtration systems on the machines. For example, the medical and chemical processing industries often use hydraulic filters. Those fit onto hydraulic robots and eliminate particulate matter from the machines’ hydraulic lines.

Pharmaceutical plants may also implement robots into processing measures with the explicit goal of targeting contaminants. In one research study, a group developed a robotic vacuum cleaner for compounding pharmacies.

It had cleaning modes that involved brushing, mopping, and ultraviolet light. Experiments with the device involved simulating contamination occurring through regular usage and events where the contamination happened due to an unexpected event.

The results showed that the robot either eliminated or showed a 932-fold reduction in high and low water-soluble active pharmaceutical ingredients that caused chemical contamination.  Such outcomes occurred after a single-step cleaning mode, which suggests that the robot got the job done both quickly and effectively.

Company leaders who want to take a similar approach should identify the most likely contamination sources, then assess whether robots could target those. Robotic machines are most often parts of extensive cleaning processes rather than used for handling every step.

Thus, a smart approach is to identify areas where current approaches for contamination reduction fall short or those with high human error rates.

Improving Syringe-Handling Methods for Better Productivity

A crucial step in pharmaceutical processing occurs when products get moved into trays, preparing them for later areas on a production line. Humans usually handle this responsibility, known as retraying, when the products involve syringes. However, robots often manage products in blister packs.

A relatively new development uses a 3D camera to detect syringe locations. It then sends those coordinates to a two-armed robot that retrieves the medication containers. Since the bot has two arms, it can grip in parallel and do it twice as fast as humans deployed to do the same role.

In another instance, Irish company Ward Automation engineered a robot to test, label, and palletize syringes. It can handle 600 of them per minute. The robot’s design represents a departure from the company’s previous method of making machines custom-built for an individual client’s needs.

This new option suits any pharmaceutical company currently making syringes. Ward Automation’s plans relate to taking this standardized platform outside of Ireland and broadening its potential reach. It also illuminates the extent of possibilities for people interested in investing in pharmaceutical robots.

Any pre-purchase planning should include specifics such as whether to purchase something standardized or customized. Moreover, company leaders may need to investigate combining multiple technologies to get the desired results. In this section’s first example, the robot would not have successfully picked syringes without the 3D camera’s information.

Pharmaceutical Robots Helping Companies Compete

Succeeding in pharmaceutical processing requires achieving numerous aims, such as keeping output levels high, exercising robust quality control, and eliminating activities that could introduce unacceptable impurities into products.

Robots are not the universal solution to all those needs, but if used strategically, they can assist companies in becoming competitive for the first time or maintaining a competitive advantage.

Choosing appropriate pharmaceutical robots to meet a company’s needs means assessing factors like the available budget, factory floor space, the number and type of products produced, and a facility’s current average output. Knowing those specifications will facilitate selecting the best robots to aid a company now and into the future.

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