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Although once used only for large production processes, robotics are now working their way into every aspect of the pharma manufacturing processes.
How has the use of robotics in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry changed in recent years?
In the past, robotics were only usually used in mass production processes (e.g., in the automotive industry and food industries) because of the high costs and space requirements associated with them. This has changed in recent years as robotic systems are now much more accessible in terms of size and cost. These smaller, more flexible and less expensive systems can be used even for small production processes; for example, for pharmaceutical packaging: robotic systems optimise the efficiency of machine configurations designed for frequent product changeover. This requires highly flexible systems to maintain fluent production processes.
What key factors have shaped the current market for robotics?
The market for pharmaceutical manufacturing has changed significantly in recent years; batches are smaller, customer demands are more specialised, and there is an increasing emphasis on cost and time management. Robotics have naturally had to adapt to grow with the market and meet this demand.
What are the key challenges to implementing robotics in pharmaceutical manufacturing?
Pharmaceutical manufacturing is intensely regulated and is also a rather conservative industry — these factors do not facilitate the introduction of new technologies. Despite this challenge, many pharma companies have still chosen to implement robotic systems to increase manufacturing flexibility and achieve cost reductions in small batch productions. The introduction of robotic systems has also been encouraged by the fact that many kinds of systems are now available at reasonable prices. The pick-and-place systems vary regarding their degree of complexity, flexibility and automation. The different systems offer a wide range of speed and capacity, so they can be individually adapted to the requirements of each production process.
How receptive do you feel the pharmaceutical industry is to the use of robotics in drug manufacturing — particularly in roles that may traditionally have been performed by personnel?
As well as the points mentioned above, some companies have a strong social sense of not substituting human resources with production machines and robotic systems. As the drug manufacturing sector is still experiencing considerable growth, however, companies can invest in new systems and still maintain staff levels by assigning personnel other tasks to do.
In which segments of pharmaceutical manufacturing is robotics technology fairly advanced, and which areas of manufacturing do you believe it is lacking, and would therefore benefit from robotics technology?
Efficiency and cost improvements can still be made in the packaging process of pharmaceutical products. Many companies still use manual processes for several production steps, such as tablet feeding and even cartoning, but I believe these — particularly labour-intensive packaging processes, such as product handling, cartoning and case packing — will eventually shift to automated processes where robotics will play an important role and bring operating costs down considerably.
What are your predictions for the future use of robotics in the pharmaceutical industry and what do you believe will be the groundbreaking innovations of tomorrow?
The use of robotics in the industry will continue to increase because of the need for higher efficiencies, flexibility and cost reduction. The most significant progress will probably be made in the technology itself through continuous improvement, helping to further reduce costs and increase production speeds.
Bernd Webel is Sales Director, Romaco Packaging