Pharmaceutical Robots - A Comprehensive Overview
A study by Grand View Research predicts that the global market for pharmaceutical robotics will reach USD 357.9 million by 2030. The market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 9.2% from 2022 to 2030. This growth can be attributed to several factors, including the ability of automated systems to rapidly and safely perform repetitive tasks such as moving test tubes and fluids, counting pills and packaging them, and inspecting for quality control.
The pandemic caused a huge acceleration in the rate of adoption of pharmaceutical robots. Orders for robots from North American life sciences companies increased by 69% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), a trade group focused on the robotics industry. The increased demand came from a massively increased need to process test samples and produce testing kits and protective equipment like masks and gloves.
Other factors like personalized medicine are impacting the demand for pharmaceutical robots. Personalized medicine rests on the idea that some people will respond better to a certain treatment than others, based on their genetic makeup. The concept brings with it a vastly expanded need for testing patient samples and medical formulations. Because personalized medicine implies many more customized medications, packaging and labeling requirements will increase. With personalized medicine, the batch size can be reduced to one dose.
A lower volume per medication added to a higher variety of medicines increases the labor intensity of producing these pharmaceuticals. The combination drives the market demand for robotics.
In this article, we will take a closer look at the use of robots in the pharmaceutical industry and some of the best pharmaceutical robot use cases and their benefits.
Note that one limiting factor in the adoption of robot automation is government regulation. In particular, regulations have so far inhibited the use of self-learning systems and artificial intelligence. The regulators may take time to catch up with the technology. Of course, safety is of paramount importance, so regulation is needed.
Robot Applications Ripe for Automation in Pharmaceutical Workflows
Pharmaceutical applications for robots can be separated into two main categories: laboratory automation and production. You may wish to consult the article “Liquid Handling Robots: Benefits and Available Solutions” for more information on laboratory automation and handling liquids.
Pick and Place
According to a study by Global Market Estimates, the delta-style robot is the most often used type of robot for pick and place applications. Delta robots are known for their speed, yet they are limited by the amount of weight they can carry. Since most medications are quite small and lightweight, the Delta robot is ideal for many of the packaging applications found in pharmaceutical production. SCARA robots are also fast and, for many pharmaceutical pick-and-place operations, are excellent choices.
When a larger weight-carrying capacity is needed, articulated arm robots and Cartesian robot arms are used.
Packaging includes not only placing pills and vials into blister packs and boxes, but also the very important task of printing and applying labels. Robots handle this kind of job precisely and tirelessly.
Robots equipped with vision systems can remove primary packages from a conveyor belt and place them into secondary packaging such as cartons.
Mixing and Dosing
Some liquid medications need to be swirled about in a vial or bottle as part of the production process. A powder may need to be dissolved into a liquid. A robot arm can gently pick up a vial and rotate it according to extremely strict pathway specifications – in a pendulum motion, vertical or horizontal rotation, and many other motions, such as shaking. The repeatability of the motion is crucial to the reliability of the results. Humans find it boring and difficult to repeat precise motions over thousands of repetitions, whereas robots excel at such tasks.
For large, bulk production of tablets and other types of medicines, conventional automation in the form of stationary mixers and dosing equipment is most often used. However, robotics can assist the process. For example, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) can supply bulk materials to stationary equipment. An AGV or Automated Mobile Robot (AMR) can transport the ingredients of a medicine from storage to the dispensing machine with little to no human intervention.
Quality Inspection and Quality Control
Robotic equipment plays a crucial role in testing pharmaceuticals at many stages of the production process.
The assaying or testing of samples may involve the disintegration of tablets into powders. An assay may require the dispersion of a powder into a liquid. Solid and liquid ingredients may need to be mixed together to achieve evenness and activate chemical reactions.
For high-volume tests on a production line, while a robot could perform such a mixing task, a dedicated machine may perform these mixing and testing tasks. Traditional automation serves well in such a scenario. Robots can be used to fill in the gaps. For example, a robot can load samples into the assaying machine, and also remove the specimens when the test is complete.
High Volume vs. Low Volume
Low-volume tasks have different needs than high-volume production. When a company develops a new drug, the process involves low volume and high variability. At the beginning of the process to create a new medication, several million different drug candidates or “leads” must be tested. At each stage of the testing process, most of the leads are eliminated until finally, one or two promising candidates emerge.
Cobots work well alongside people because they are designed to limit their speed and force. Cobots sense if humans are nearby and may slow down or stop to remain safe. Another safety strategy for cobots involves not only vision sensors to avoid collisions but also sensors to limit the force of their movements to avoid injuring people.
People can typically “teach” a cobot what to do by manually moving the robot into the different poses required. The robot then moves from one pose to the next, performing a series of steps “shown” to it by the operator. In this way, a cobot can be programmed without the use of code.
The adaptability and ease of use of a cobot is especially valuable when there are many different tasks to perform. Studies show cobots are a rising phenomenon within the pharmaceutical space. The repetitive task capability of the robot in collaboration with the individual skills of a person represents a powerful combination.
At the end of the production process, finished products need to be packed up to be shipped to customers. Palletizing robots automate this task by grasping boxes or cartons and stacking them onto pallets.
Palletizing robots can optimize stacking to maximize the number of boxes contained per pallet. Ensuring stability in shipping is another optimization criterion. Automatic shrink-wrapping can also be performed by palletizing robots, which aids in securing valuable cargo.
Because the weights of boxes, cartons, and pallets are larger than earlier in the production process, the robot arms tend to be more powerful at this later stage. The type of robot used varies according to the application. If the motions needed are simple, a Cartesian robot may suffice. If maximum flexibility is needed, articulated robot arms can perform complex maneuvers and carry significant weight.
Benefits to Automation for Pharmaceutical Companies
Producing medicines is an exacting task. Robots help to limit the products’ exposure to contaminants by keeping people away from the process. Furthermore, people are kept safer by diminishing their proximity to harmful chemicals and fumes. Repetitive motions can also cause injury to workers, and robots can help prevent such problems.
Repeatability is critical when operating a pharmaceutical process that involves a series of highly precise tasks. Robots excel at being able to accurately move in prescribed ways with little variability.
In the pharmaceutical industry, a mistake can cost lives. Accuracy is vitally crucial, and robots enable companies to increase their consistency and quality without sacrificing speed.
Performing tasks at a high speed over a long period of time is crucial for the throughput of a process. In many tasks, particularly those which involve picking and placing small objects like pills and small bottles, robots can operate three to four times faster than people, and they can do this without needing breaks or becoming distracted or bored. Due to this, implementing robots in pharmaceutical production helps to increase throughput.
Labor shortages are rampant. Most companies have found robots enable their current employees to get more done in less time. It’s not so much a question of replacing people with robots; instead, robots allow your existing workforce to keep pace with rising demand.
Challenges and Risks When Considering Automating
Many issues can stand in the way of adopting robotics in your company. One consideration is having room for the equipment. Although robots make efficient use of workspace, manufacturing floor space is limited, and you may have to rearrange things to accommodate the new equipment.
No doubt a certain margin of increase in throughput can be achieved within the current size of your production operation. On the other hand, if you’re looking to increase production by a considerable amount, you may need to increase the size of your facility. Not only increased production space will be needed, but storage space and space for packing and palletizing, too.
Another concern might be not seeing the value of robotics for your operations. You may find it helpful to talk with people who have seen companies similar to yours successfully implement robotics. Although discussing things with vendors can be valuable, sometimes a more impartial viewpoint is needed.
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