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PHARMACEUTICAL AUTOMATION Machine-centric robotics revitalising pharma packaging

Mar 11, 2020

With the fast-paced robotic revolution, there is a significant cost, error and time reduction that is expected to come into pharma packaging. The article offers a detailed study on how machine-centric robotics has made robots sensible and the various ways it’s aiding the pharma industry process. - Sivaram PV, Chairman Non-Executive, B&R Industrial Automation

Robots, an icon of Industry 4.0, are considered to relieve humans of repetitive and laborious work. As the intelligence and capability of robots increase, we look for more innovative designs to boost their value. One of the main accusations levied against intelligent robots is that they are actually, well, stupid. This means that there is no awareness of context or surroundings. Machine-centric robotics addresses this issue by close integration of robot with the machine. As a result, the robot is perceived to become suddenly more sensible.

Importance of packaging for pharma

The pharmaceutical industry requires safe and secure packaging to maintain identification and stability of drugs. The packaging must provide proper protection and reduce the risk of contamination. Pharmaceutical packaging is important as it protects the product from physical, chemical and microbiological invasion. It is also a medium to present useful details to the consumer and influence their choice; a good packaging assures the consumer of good quality.

Labelling of products is important in pharma applications as it provides vital information like composition and expiry date of the product. It also provides data needed for tracking and tracing, such as a batch number. And of course, it is the packaging which carries the labelling.

Pharma packaging continues to face challenges arising out of regulatory regimes, competitive landscape leading to faster time-to-market, informed customers and globalisation. The challenges are nearly the same for both, OTC and prescription drugs. Brands still need to build physician awareness and trust through product-centred information. But to win with empowered consumers, they must also provide brand-centred relevance, based on insight into consumer behaviours, perceptions and preferences.

Variety in packaging possibilities are infinite and are broadly classified into primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary packaging is the packaging in direct contact with the product itself and is sometimes referred to as consumer or retail packaging. The main purpose of primary packaging is to protect and/or preserve, contain and inform the consumer. Secondary packaging’s main purpose is for branding display and logistical purposes. They are also used for protecting and collating individual units during storage and are often used by the F&B sector, cosmetic sectors and also the pharma industry for displaying primary packs on shelves and are sometimes also referred to as grouped or display packaging. Tertiary packaging facilitates the protection, handling and transportation of a series of sales units or secondary packaging in order to group everything into unit loads during transit. This type of packaging is rarely seen by the consumer.

Standard robotic operations in pharma-packaging

Robots are mostly seen at work in the packaging lines, either alongside operational lines or at the end-of-line. Packaging robots are designed to open, fill, transport, palletise, seal, code and/or label product packaging.

Robotic systems provide various benefits to pharmaceutical manufacturing such as lesser space utilisation, reduced production downtime, no labour turnover, enhanced health and safety, better waste management, increased production flexibility, improved production output and product quality and lower operating costs. With the growing pharmaceutical industry and the various benefits offered by robotic automation, adoption of robots is likely to increase in the coming years.

Packaging processes, like other pharmaceutical operations, benefit from the speed and repeatability that automation brings. Robotics in particular provide flexibility and accuracy. In some packaging applications, such as carton loading, robotics also performs more efficiently than dedicated machines. Pharmaceutical packaging machines are often custom designed to handle specific product configurations, such as vials.

In contrast to packaging machines, that automatically stop, if too much product accumulates at the discharge, robotic loaders and unloaders meet or exceed the in feed and discharge rates that packaging machines require. This ability allows the robot to keep the packaging process running at full production capacity.

Advantages of robotic automation in packaging

Speed - Robots work efficiently, without wasting movement or time. Without breaks or hesitation, robots are able to alter productivity by increasing throughput.

Flexibility - Robots can be easily reprogrammed for the packaging applications that vary. Changes in their End of Arm Tooling (EOAT) developments and vision technology have expanded the application-specific abilities of packaging robots.

Highlight features of integrated robotics

Integrated robotics is defined as the single line or cell controller controlling the robot, which can reduce the need for a dedicated robot controller and associated hardware components, such as servo motors, drives, teach pendant and I/O. In this way, a single controller can be used to control multiple robots and it can simplify integration and increase operational efficiency.

The concept of integrating robots into the process enables synchronised execution of robotic operations parallel to the machine operations or transport of the product. Such tight integration of robots and machine components offer the ideal foundation for implementing Industry 4.0 concepts and has a positive effect on the performance of the entire machine. The improvements are seen in the operation of the machine. The increased efficiency starting at the design stage of each operation, each machine and of the entire line all add up.

What does machine-centric robotics mean?

The question arises that - what are the differences between a machine, an industrial robot and a machine-centric robot? Mostly, it’s the difference in the tasks they perform. Machines are designed to perform one particular task such as filling, bottling, gluing, printing or stamping. Machines perform specific tasks which require periodic human intervention e.g. for operating the machine, feeding products, packing finished product, etc.

Robots perform more versatile tasks, which do not require constant human intervention to a great extent, until and unless new operations are to be performed. Robots can perform a task which is completely impossible to be performed by humans, such as carrying melted metal for the forging industry. They can work in hazardous as well as highly hygienic areas, such as medical/pharma, where even during packing and filling of a particular medicine human breath can contaminate. Industrial robots, such as a palletiser, works standalone and performs serially with reference to main operation.

Machine-centric robots, such as FlexiPicker (Delta/tripod), Scara, 6–axis serial kinamatics (Camau Racer), work in coordination and synchronisation with various machines such as packaging machine. Palletiser picks filled boxes of biscuit/bottle cartons and place it in stationary pallets whereas machine-centric robots pick syringes/ampules and place it in pocketed chain of running machine. Purpose of the articulated arms in machine-centric robotics is to manipulate products while the machine continues to process them, bringing about an increase in the throughput.

Why is this integration now possible?

Over the years, we see a great improvement in performance capabilities of PLC controllers. In many cases, manufacturers are relabelling their PLC as a PAC to underline the improved performance. Some companies like B&R are able to install real time operating system into an automation PC and make the PC function as a PLC controller. This brings a rapid performance increase in the PC systems’ ASO into real time control. Thus, it is possible to execute PLC logic as well as robotic kinematics in same controller without affecting performance or safety of either. The second limitation of storage size is also now totally removed. Controllers are able to accommodate huge amounts of program and data.

One can ask, when we try to promote distributed processing and distributed intelligence, how integration can be justified. The answer is that when we look for tight integration – for example between line operation, like filling and robotic operation like pick-and-place — a very close integration brings a boost in throughput. The tightest integration is, of course, when both functions reside in one and the same controller.

Performance benefits out of machine-centricity

When there are two or more controllers involved, there is an overhead of communication. In every such peer-to-peer communication, there needs to be a protocol. All these operations bring in a computational overhead. But much more, there is going to be a communication latency. Several benchmark demonstrations show a performance improvement by 50% and more. As a bonus, there are significant savings in cost as well.

Going beyond just cost savings, there are huge benefits in efficiency of design process. The legacy solution had been to take a regular PLC application, take a standard robot and find some ways to coordinate the two. The common solution had been to use some digital input/output signals to coordinate the operations. This led to complex programming & commissioning and made the future modifications and flexibility a challenge.

Benefits for machine builder and plant designer

When machine builders need a delta or articulated arm robot for a new machine or plant, their first instinct is to turn to one of the big names in the robotics industry. They offer a large selection of universally applicable industrial robots, specialty solutions (such as for welding, gluing or dosing applications), dedicated robot controllers and accessories. Usually, there is no way to order the robot mechanics separately from the robot controller.

More and more machine and plant builders, however, do not want to buy mechanics and controllers in a bundle and are looking for alternatives. The reason is simple – having separate controllers for robotics and machine control adds time and cost throughout engineering, commissioning and maintenance, as well as spare parts storage. In addition, latency times at the interface between robot and machine controller can make it more difficult to synchronise robot movements with machine processes, such as the movement of a conveyor belt. Modifications in SW of machine controller may need a second modification in robot programming.

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  • The newly developed integrated solution supports machine builders, enhances processes and future-proofs automation investments. Since the machine builder no longer needs to use separate hardware, communication networks and applications, one is able to achieve much tighter synchronisation between the robot and other machine components.

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