Robots, pharmaceuticals, and packaging

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A robot differs from a machine in that it can automatically perform specific mechanical functions without an operator. Hence, though it still requires maintenance, a robot can carry out one or more pre-programed tasks in order to reduce the amount of human intervention required in production.

There are many advantages to using robots, including saving money on wages or employee benefits, uninterrupted production lines, accelerated manufacturing speed, and many more. The question is, with something as sensitive as the production of pharmaceutical products and their packaging, are robots a good choice? Can a line that includes robots offer the same product quality and safety as a line that only includes machinery operated by intelligent and qualified humans?

In theory, yes. The task of a robot is to facilitate, to do a small set of very specific tasks quickly and efficiently, without rest or deviation. As such, the mechanics of production will still require people to ensure the process is being carried out adequately and according to the prevailing legislations and regulations. Thinking that a robot will be a complete replacement is incorrect. Service personnel, quality control staff, overseers, technicians, and others will still be required to offer their services to ensure the robot, a simple tool, will continue to fulfil its function.

Successful firms understand that a robot is an incredibly useful production adjunct, not a full solution. A robot can do a series of complex, meticulous tasks in exactly the same way each time much more quickly than a person can. What it cannot do is adapt to changing conditions, comprehend when errors occur, adjust to varying environmental conditions, or make decisions based on complicated, real situations. A robot is an incredibly complex hinge or pulley, it works in exactly the same way each time it operates. Once this simple paradigm is understood, one can begin to appreciate the value of a robot as a tool.

Case in point is the result of the union between Swedish and UK professionals at AstraZeneca. The biopharmaceutical company specializes in the discovery, development, manufacturing, and marketing of prescription medicines that make a meaningful difference in healthcare. When it came time to accelerating the production and time to market of approved allergy medication, AstraZeneca decided to incorporate robots into the line. The production of the company’s Rhinocort medication occurs in clean room conditions, as does the filling of the product into 10ml bottles with a nasal spray closure attachment. The filled bottles then leave the clean room and are labelled and pushed into small boxes with a prospectus, shrink-wrapped together in bundles of ten. As soon as all that occurs, two robots take over, constructing shipping boxes, getting the bundled product sets into larger boxes, print product information and tracking data on the boxes, and gets the finished bundled onto pallets. The pallets are taken into a warehouse by a human operator every half hour, who also ensures a clear pallet is left for the robots to continue their job. In this case, AstraZeneca has eliminated the need for people to erect boxes, fill them, and lift them onto pallets. By doing so, the company has been able to speed up its time to market, from eight weeks to two weeks.

Even more advanced are the robots currently being provided to the pharmaceutical industry by Toshiba Machines. In this case, the robots offered by the firm are designed to offer viable replacements for humans in a clean room environment. According to TM, this can reduce the required size for the clean room itself and costs associated with having people entering and exiting the sterile environment through air curtains or locks. The company also offers robots that are vision enabled, meaning they can be programmed to inspect and proofread labels as well as scan barcodes, a job that has traditionally been relegated to humans. By combining several key features, TM can provide modern pharmaceutical companies with small, sterile, and quick robots to take care of clean room chores and speed up production. Of course, humans will still be needed to maintain them as well as re-program them if a line change should be required.

In the USA, one of the primary sources for pharmaceutical line robots is Fanuc, offering an incredibly wide assortment of solutions. The company has robots that can scan and sort vials according to their barcode. It has robots that can pick items from a pallet. It has robots that can pack healthcare products into boxes, sort pills according to their colours, load and unload products, assemble small parts into complex arrangements, and many other applications. The notion that humans are absolutely required for tasks involving simple logic is swiftly being eroded thanks to companies like Fanuc, that keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible and what is not. As scanning and processing technology advance, so does the ability of a robot to interact with its environment, as they are no longer hampered by being without “senses”.

Using robots on a pharmaceutical packaging line line may seem to be a simple solution to renewing a business, but there are drawbacks. Regardless of how fast robots are, they cannot react to situations that are outside their programming parameters. Therefore, they work swimmingly well when everything runs smoothly but can grind production to a halt if there’s a problem. They’re also expensive to buy and to maintain, and installing them into a line is no guarantee of getting an ample return on investment. Some larger robots can even pose a threat to humans when working at full speed, though these are most often seen in the heavy industrial sector.

Just like all manufacturing sectors, whether a company decides to invest in robot labour will depend on a number of factors considered carefully. Companies in the pharmaceutical industry, particularly those that work with sensitive materials, should consider whether the swap is necessary and will prove beneficial.

The upside of robots

  • Long term cost savings related to personnel
  • Easy and lasting sterilization
  • Incredibly fast production
  • Capable of monotonous tasks without tiring
  • Consistent quality
  • Safety when dealing with hazardous materials

The downside of robots

  • High initial investment costs
  • Requirement for internal or external maintenance personnel
  • Costs related to training personnel to work with robots
  • High repair costs if applicable
  • No ROI guarantee