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 perform more efficiently than dedicated machines.
Pharmaceutical packaging machines are often custom-designed to handle specific product configurations such as vials. Richard Bahr, president and CEO of MGS Machine (Maple Grove, MN), observes that it is sometimes impractical to perform full life-cycle testing on special machines’ designs. Conversely, the mechanical design of robots is tested to well-established functional limits. “As long as the robot is being used within its specified limits for speed and payload, you can count on it not failing,” Bahr comments.
In addition to reliable operation, robotics provide flexibility because they can be programmed for multiple consecutive or simultaneous tasks. For example, a single robot can load cases into a side-loading system and place lidstock on packed products. Robotics perform “multiple functions that would be much more expensive to do with a custom mechanism because of the motion range and the reorientation required,” according to Dick Motley, engineering manager at FANUC Robotics North America (Rochester Hills, MI). Thus, a single robot often can replace multiple pieces of conventional packaging machinery, saving the manufacturer time and money.
The end effecter is the key to robotics’ flexibility, according to Walt Langosch, director of sales and marketing at ESS Technologies (Blacksburg, VA). End effecters with quick-release connections typically reduce changeover time to less than two minutes, he says. One robot may be programmed to handle several products, and a robot originally programmed for one product can be given a new end effecter and programming to perform a new application. In contrast, application-specific automation equipment designed to handle one product “becomes obsolete or requires expensive retooling when a manufacturer wants to run a new product on an existing packaging line,” Langosch explains.
Besides being able to handle various products, robots can fit the requirements of products’ manufacturing processes. For example, robotics can be adapted to work in aseptic environments. Cleanroom robots have features that protect the sterile environment from potential contamination. These features include low-flake coatings on the robotic arm, stainless steel fasteners, special seal materials, and enclosed cables. All of these features reduce the amount of debris the robot sheds. Robots can also be created with a smooth finish that does not retain particles, support bacterial growth, or rust. The presence of human personnel in a cleanroom environment poses the highest contamination risk, but the use of robots can reduce the number of personnel involved in the packaging process and thus, significantly reduce this risk.
Robots provide more than just repeatability. Operators can build in robust error-checking and fault tolerance to robotics as well. Robots’ range of motion and dexterity allow them to provide more recovery options than other automated equipment. If a defective product causes a jam in a carton-loading operation, for example, conventional packaging equipment might destroy the product lot or require an operator’s intervention. “A robot can sense the fault and take a recovery path or take an active role in ejecting the defective product,” Motley remarks. The result is increased uptime and greater operating efficiency than is achievable with dedicated machines.
In contrast to packaging machines that automatically stop if too much product accumulates at the discharge, robotic loaders and unloaders meet or exceed the infeed and discharge rates that packaging machines require. “This ability allows the robot to keep the packaging process running at full production capacity,” according to Langosch.
Traditional packaging machines cannot react to product variations. Integrating high-level sensory functions into robotics, on the other hand, is becoming common. This trend can improve the packaging process. Vision sensing systems, for example, permit robots to orient product correctly on the packaging line, so operators “don’t have to present everything perfectly,” Motley comments. “The same cameras that guide the robot can also perform inspections and detect defective product,” he adds.
“The real value of robotics is much better quality control” compared with alternative systems, agrees Lloyd Spencer, president and CEO of CoroWare (Redmond, WA). Though quality control may be the biggest service that robotic systems perform, the flexibility, repeatability, and speed they offer can also make life easier for packaging operators.