Selective integration of industrial robots is a solution accelerator for automation specialists working in the pharmaceuticals sector, from drug manufacturing to pharmacy automation.
Pharmaceutical manufacturing is intensively automated to meet practical and financial targets. Throughput must be high and errors low to ensure profitability. Another advantage is that removing human interaction helps avoid contamination to ensure high quality and consumer safety.
The sequence of processes and layout of the production line can be complex and the entire production facility can occupy a large floor space. This can be challenging to design and the resulting installation can be expensive to build using conventional, customised factory automation.
Robots in Drug Production
A common approach is to introduce industrial robots to perform specific processes within the sequence – particularly where items need to be moved or positioned individually. In these situations, the system integrator can take advantage of the robot technology as a ready-to-use solution that is convenient and cost effective. The integrator can program the robot by teaching or by simulation using graphical software. An off-the-shelf gripper, supplied by the robot maker or a third-party specialist, may be suitable for the task at hand; typically lifting or holding. Otherwise, a custom-designed end effector may be needed.
Integrating robots selectively in this way permits a compact production line that can be delivered quickly and saves bringing up an application-specific design using conventional automation technologies. They are frequently used in places where conveyorizing and palletising are required. Typical tasks include handling and sorting pills, capsules, vials, and other materials, as well as picking, placing, and aligning items like bottles, cartons, and trays. They are also used for filling and capping containers, placing tablets, capsules, and vials into blister packs, attaching labels to containers, and packing finished products in boxes ready for shipping. Other ideal tasks to be assigned to robots include selecting and assembling components to make up items such as pill boxes and syringes.
Robots are also suited to processes that involve mixing and dispensing ingredients for drug formulations. In addition, where items such as containers are brought to the factory floor in bulk packs as received from the supplier, a SCARA robot can pick items such as empty bottles individually from a pile. An intelligent sorter can enhance picking by randomly re-orienting the items between picks. The item can then be correctly oriented and aligned as required and subsequently placed on a conveyor or pallet for filling, labelling, and sealing.
Robots Expand Options
Various types of robots can be deployed for the pick and place, sorting, packaging, and assembly processes. SCARA type machines are often chosen as they offer a combination of high speed and dexterity with long reach and large load carrying capability. Ceiling-mounted robots such as Yamaha’s YK-TW orbit-type SCARA series (figure 1) enable a smaller footprint by picking and placing items in any location within the area beneath the robot. In addition, these robots have a lower height than alternatives such as delta robots. Camera integration, controlled using dedicated robot-vision instructions through the RCXiVY2+ controller, allows high-speed alignment and inspection of items such as bottle caps and labels.
Figure 1. Ceiling-mounted SCARA combines a small footprint with lower height than delta robots.
SCARA robots are also available in dust-proof/drip-proof and cleanroom-ready specifications (figure 2), specially designed with IP65 protection rating and direct-driven moving parts to eliminate debris resulting from drivebelt wear. Such units are available with arm length from 180mm to 1000mm, and maximum payload from 1kg to 20kg, giving ample range for typical pharmaceutical production-line use.
Figure 2. Cleanroom robots with IP65-rated vertical bellows protect the manufacturing environment.
Compact, application-focused 2-axis, 3-axis and 4-axis pick-and-place robots such as Yamaha’s YP-X series provide another option for designers, bringing special attributes such as minimal width for use within tight space constraints.
Automation companies can deliver extra value by integrating robot-based technologies at other places in their line particularly for Transporting items from one process to the next is usually done with custom conveyors designed and commissioned specifically for the task. Extensive surveying and planning must precede construction to minimise the risk of errors that can delay project delivery and cause cost overruns. Programmable linear transport modules like the LCMR200 (figure 3) permit an alternative approach that allows flexibility to configure almost any layout and to program speed, direction, start/stop positions, and acceleration/deceleration individually for each module. The layout and settings can be redesigned or fine-tuned with minimal impact on the project cost or timeline, while additional benefits include the ability to adapt and scale the transport as production requirements change in the future.
Figure 3. Linear transport boosts the system integrator’s toolbox.
With LCMR200 transfer modules for both horizontal and vertical axes, and the latest crossover module, it is possible to build flexible grid-like transport structures in two and three dimensions. Unlike conventional conveyors, the modules are programmed in the same way as other robots in the production line, using the same tools and methodology. By connecting all units to a single controller, lines can be configured up to 25.5 metres long and with up to 64 independent sliders controlled simultaneously. Direct positioning of the sliders allows processes such as component placement or assembly to be performed without removing the item from the module, saving significant engineering time and costs.
Robots are also changing perceptions of the pharmaceutical industry close to the point of care, in automated pharmacy systems that improve and accelerate dispensing of medicines for patients.
Pharmacy automation takes over the laborious mixing, measuring, counting, and capping traditionally done by pharmacists. It can even fulfil prescriptions while the pharmacy is closed. Pharmacists can thus spend more time counselling patients and delivering preventive services such as health screening and vaccinations.
In addition, pharmacy automation can enhance efficient use of space within pharmacies, ensure that medicines can always be stored and prepared under the right conditions, secure and track controlled drugs, and minimise medication errors.
Although this is a fast-moving market, growing at close to 8% and expected to reach $8.2 billion by 2027 , high initial setup costs can be a barrier to adoption. Robots like Yamaha’s YK400XE affordable-cost, high-performance SCARA series can help overcome this and deliver a faster return on investment. Easy to program and combine with standard grippers or custom-designed end effectors, these can take care of picking, mixing, and packaging the drugs ready to be retrieved for the patient.
As a ready solution to engineering challenges that demand accurately controlled high-speed motion, industrial robots help to keep the project on time and on budget. Flexible and programmable, their cycle time can be synchronised with the line speed to achieve the desired production rate measured in units per hour.
The latest affordable-cost SCARA robots and flexible transport modules give system integrators additional options to deliver value for customers, leveraging robots not only to boost productivity but to improve the accessibility, safety, and quality of services for patients – ideally leading to better outcomes.
About Yamaha FA Section
Yamaha Factory Automation Section (FA Section), a subdivision of Yamaha Motor Robotics Business Unit in Yamaha Motor Corporation, is focused on delivering flexible, high-accuracy industrial robots for precision automation challenges.
With its roots in the introduction of robot technology to Yamaha motorcycle assembly activities, the division has over 40 years’ experience solving automation challenges from factory-scale to micron-level. Yamaha’s industrial robots are now trusted by leading corporations worldwide, in activities as diverse as semiconductor fabrication and assembling electronic products, domestic appliances, automotive components, and large liquid-crystal panels.
Yamaha Motor FA Section offers a unified range of solutions for robotic assembly, including single-axis robots, SCARA, cartesian, and articulated robots. Innovations such as the LCMR200 linear conveyor module; a smoother, space-saving and more versatile successor to conventional belt and roller conveyors continue to set the pace in factory automation. Core robotic technologies as well as key components and complete robot systems are all produced in-house, ensuring consistent quality and control over lead-times.
Headquartered in Neuss, Germany, Yamaha FA Section serves customers in all Europe.