The use of robotics, particularly in packaging, is widely expected to be adopted at a much higher rate in industries such as food and pharmaceuticals because of its unrivalled speed, efficiency and reduction in errors.
However, the food and pharmaceutical industries face the added pressure to comply with increasingly stringent hygiene regulations.
The rigorous standards set out by good manufacturing practices (GMP) ensure that the development and manufacture of food and drugs are carried out safely. Set out by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this is where robotics comes into its own, in terms of repeatability and error reduction rates.
The robots, part of robotics specialist ABB’s range of industrial robots, are designed specifically for picking, packing and palletising. Their utilisation in the vaccines and diagnostics section at Novartis has been highlighted as a prime example of why robotics has been adopted so readily.
Vaccine packaging robotics
Vaccine facilities are a good example of requiring specific types of packaging that need special handling when compared to traditional plastic packs.
Machines capable of processing syringe units rapidly and safely have already created a market for manufacturers such as Staubli, Fanuc and Komatsu. The range of robots is ABB’s response in addressing this need.
Novartis’ vaccine plant uses each of the robots in key points along the production line. With the IRB 660 Flex Palletizer, the robot employs two built-in scanners to consign boxes onto one of three pallets for shipping. It achieves this by reading the attached barcodes.
The ABB FlexPicker is then used in packaging oral vaccines for polio. It employs vision-aided conveyor tracking to aid the packing motion. This allows the robot to pick up each polio cartridge from a conveyor belt and to place it within a box of 20 cartridges.
Finally, Novartis employ the IRB 260 to anchor a packaging line for flu and meningitis vaccines. In a normal run there will be up to 500 syringes a minute. These arrive in lidded plastic tubs, each containing 100 syringes. The robot removes the tub lid by vacuum, lifts the syringes and places them on a conveyor belt.
The empty lids and tubs are then positioned separately on a pallet. The positioning has to be precise because GMP for the pharmaceutical industry requires strict separation of packaging materials and products.
Datamatrix code reading through the telecamera mounted on the robot's head ensure the tubs and the contents match. This ensures the right vaccines have arrived in the right tubs avoiding any cross contamination risk.
“In the past, investment criteria for robotic picking, packing and palletising have tended to focus on labour reduction,” said Frank-Peter Kirgis, segment manager for consumer industries at ABB Robotics.
“Other factors are now increasing in importance. The design of easy-to-use hygienic picking and packing robots, facilitated by the design of high-speed wash-down robots with integrated vision systems, has focused attention on the benefits of higher outputs and consistent quality and hygiene,” he added.
Pharma robotics growth
The pharmaceutical industry is a sector previously identified for growth, particularly the demand for packaging machinery. As well as precision and accuracy, the need for cleanliness has created a market in which manufacturers have jostled for prime position, driven by new technological developments within the robotics sector.
According to data compiled from the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA), ABB has taken over 30 per cent of the UK market for industrial robots in the first three months of 2010.
The Material Worlds Magazine has identified the Austrian group KNAPP as the world's leading supplier of automated warehouse solutions to the pharmaceutical sector.
In Europe, approximately 80 per cent of the logistics automation equipment supplied to pharmaceutical wholesalers has been delivered by KNAPP.