How robots are revolutionising medical device manufacturing
The factory of the future is a term that has been thrown around for a number of years now but what does it mean? We entered the fourth age of the industrial revolution – Industry 4.0 – some time ago and manufacturers have explored the range of digital technologies that Industry 4.0 encompasses.
One of the biggest technologies used in industrial manufacturing is robotics. Europe represents the second largest market for industrial robot sales and in 2016 there was a 12% increase in the number of sales made using the technology.
Whilst it’s difficult to gauge the uptake of robotics within the medical manufacturing industry, figures do show that robot sales to the electronics industry, which includes medical devices, have risen significantly since 2013 (1).
The reason for this? Robotics offer manufacturers a way to streamline production lines, helping to increase productivity and optimise workflows. Within medical manufacturing, robots are being used across the entire production line – from assembly to inspection and packaging. Due to the strict regulations device manufacturers are under pressure to reproduce the same product, under the same stringent conditions, with little downtime. To keep up with the pace of innovation, medical manufacturers must be able to change manufacturing lines when new products are needing to be developed. Robotics and automation offer manufacturers modular systems that promote efficiency and workflow. Motion control systems help production lines assemble and move medical devices in a flexible workspace; meanwhile control sensing and vision-guided systems can help manufacturers not only pick-and-place devices but ensure product safety by scanning and verifying barcodes (2).
Take for example Kuka’s KR Agilus six-axis robot. Designed for high-working speeds in confined spaces, Agilus can be installed on the floor, ceiling or wall, enabling manufacturers to maximise their workspaces while reducing cycle times and increasing production quality. To be used within a number of sectors including cleanrooms, Agilus aims to ensure continuous productivity by never needing a change of lubricant.
Looking towards the realms of human and robot collaboration, Festo has designed a workstation that combines self-learning systems with artificial intelligence (AI) and robot-based automation. The company’s BionicWorkplace enables humans to work alongside a bionic robotic arm in a fully customisable workspace. Workers are supported through a range of systems and peripheral devices which help to relieve them of tiring or hazardous tasks. Unlike other robotic systems, which entirely replace the human element, BionicWorkplace is made for those industries in which the human worker cannot be replaced. The system is able to learn from every action initiated from its base and can optimise itself to become consistent in its production. Better yet, the system’s processes and skill can be transferred to other BionicWorkplace’s and in the future, Festo anticipates it will be possible to integrate multiple systems in a global network in which orders are placed and carried out autonomously by the machinery.
Sterility can be a key consideration for some medical device manufacturers. Neal Welch, business manager for life science at Mitsubishi Electric, explains: “Automation has always lent itself to the manufacture of mass produced disposable medical devices and the bulk processing of samples – for two main reasons; initially for speed and repeatability, and then because human presence poses one of the biggest contamination risks in a clean production or processing environment.”
A Mitsubishi Electric robot arm on a packaging machine, inserting devices into blister packs ready for sealing. [Source: Mitsubishi Electric Europe B.V.]
Derby-based Riverside Medical Packaging is using robotics to increase productivity. The company turned to Mitsubishi Electric to help it develop its Shawpak thermoforming sealing machines.
The machine, which is designed for cleanroom environments, uses an innovative forming, packing and sealing process which is now carried-out on a drum, rather than a linear conveyor system. Production benefits come from the fact that the machines start at only 1.5 metres and can occupy less than 2m2, representing a reduction of up to 95% compared to traditional form fill sealing (FFS) machine (3).
Ivor Rowe, technical manager at Riverside Medical said: “A comparable FFS machine can be anywhere from seven to 20 metres in length depending on the packaging process requirements, occupying a working space of up to 40 m2. As a result, a given cleanroom space can fit six times more packing machines with a Shawpak design, increasing both productivity and throughput.”
Here in the UK, manufacturers seem reluctant to deploy robotic systems. A government report last year showed that the UK is lagging behind international manufacturing competitors. The Made Smarter Review states that for every 10,000 employees the UK only has 33 robots. Compare this to 93 in the US and 170 in Germany and it’s easy to see why the UK is below other countries in terms of productivity(4).
Indeed, a survey by Protolabs(5) of 301 senior business decision makers in the UK manufacturing industry showed that automation isn’t having that much of an impact on organisations’ business models. The survey showed that 15% of respondents said they have no automation in their manufacturing services, and one in 10 (9.7%) expect no or only a little (15%) increase in automation in their business over the next five years. The statistics are worrying, especially when you consider the technological advances being made to benefit manufacturers.
However, initiatives in the UK such as LCR 4.0 are aiming to help companies utilise Industry 4.0 technologies to modernise manufacturing lines.
The project, which is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (EDRF), aims to place Liverpool City Region as a modern and collaborative hub for manufacturing by connecting SMEs with other businesses and offering access to practical support through a dedicated LCR 4.0 team.
Currently operating on a local level within Liverpool, the initiative is expected to create 60 news jobs in supported businesses; deliver fully subsidised support to 300 SMEs in Liverpool and enable collaborations between 200 businesses and partners.
Last year, it was announced that LCR 4.0 has already delivered support to almost 100 businesses in Liverpool and is being touted as one of the most important projects in the UK for helping to promote Industry 4.0 to manufacturers.
Mentioned in the Made Smarter Review(6) in 2017, LCR 4.0 still needs to do more, “to integrate districts from all corners of the Liverpool City Region,” according to Simon Reid, sector manager for advanced manufacturing at the Liverpool City Region LEP.
With LCR 4.0 already showing signs of success, a similar nation-wide initiative might be the next logical step if the UK wants to boost its manufacturing production and reach targets set out in its Industrial Strategy.
German-based Siemens is a big advocate of the need to push towards more modern methods of manufacturing. Despite a number of barriers (digital skills, collaboration, cyber-security) currently preventing a successful transition to Industry 4.0, Siemens’ believes that manufacturers must adopt digital practices if they are to stay relevant and competitive.
Through the company’s Process Industries and Drives Division, Siemens has helped companies including Evonik and Covestro increase their digitisation capabilities. Siemens realises that the vast amount of data that companies now generate needs to be utilised if businesses are to optimise not only production lines, but entire operating plants.
Indeed, Siemens now offers its services to businesses, stating it can create a ‘digital twin’ of manufacturers’ plants that can be used to map and optimise product lifecycles. With robotics and automation systems starting to be implemented across manufacturing sites, Siemens offers companies modular production capabilities through which they can quickly adapt to constantly changing requirements.
Paul Kendall, industry sector manager at Festo agrees that Industry 4.0 and the technology it encompasses are vital to the future of manufacturing. Whilst robots have been around to years, Kendall says that the ‘latest innovations and deployed solutions are now adding more value than ever’.
“Based on the core elements of Industry 4.0, modern automation systems are providing more benefits and added value through digitalisation, connectivity and the use of cyber physical systems,” Kendall says.
These technologies are enabling manufacturers to capture more data, access systems remotely, view online diagnostics and add production data behind devices that are being built.
In addition to this, ‘new technologies entering into the manufacturing space are adding value far beyond the physical automation itself,’ Kendall says.
“In the future, these core technologies combined with adaptable automation and agile workflows will provide opportunities to achieve high volume batch production costs for low volume batch manufacturing bringing personalised devices and products ever nearer to the consumer.” Kendall said.
Neal Welch, business manager for life science at Mitsubishi Electric, believes that the Industrial internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0 are the logical next steps for manufacturers.
“The next stage is the integration of IIoT and Industry 4.0 style solutions where robots and machines are interconnected in a way the transcends their physical location. Mitsubishi Electric for example, is already using Edge Computing and various forms of AI such as the IBM Watson online AI service, built-in machine learning and physical teaching functions for establishing complex processes quickly without having to hard code routines and parameters as we have done in the past.
“This level of digitalisation has already allowed us to create interactive safety glasses with augmented reality displays for routine servicing and voice activation for robot function control, so it’s safe to assume that in the future, we will be looking at our robots in a different way and talking to them about what they are doing,” Welch said.
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