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Collaborative robots work beside laboratory employees to improve efficiency in pharmaceutical research and quality control labs.
Robots are ideal for performing repetitive, high-volume tasks. Advances in robotic technology and in computing are making robots easier to program and to use, and this increasing flexibility for reprogramming makes robots more economical for lower-volume tasks as well (1). In addition, improved safety systems allow robots to sense the location of human operators so that, instead of being separated from people by fixed barriers for safety, robots can now share workspaces. These collaborative robots (cobots), which are designed to safely work alongside people, are lighter weight, more mobile, and better suited to the limited space in laboratories than traditional robotics.
“The main advantage of collaborative robots in bio/pharma applications is the ability to implement without the need for safety guarding considerations typically needed on traditional robots of other types of fixed legacy automation,” explains Wes Garrett, account manager, Authorized System Integrators, FANUC America. The ability to quickly deploy is another benefit of cobots, he notes.
Cobots are simpler to use than traditional robotic arms, and they don’t require special robotics training, adds Mike Ouren, Life Sciences manager at robotic equipment manufacturer Precise Automation. “Cobots are not any more sophisticated than other types of equipment found in the laboratory. With our Preciseflex cobot, the operator can grab the end of the robot, move it to a new location, and record the new task in the software,” he explains. In addition, cobots provide the flexibility and access needed for the lab. “In traditional automation, there is a barrier around the entire automated system, but in the lab, users need access to change fluids or open instruments. Cobots can be used without a safety barrier,” explains Ouren. For example, Precise Automation’s PP100 cartesian (four-axis) collaborative robot, introduced in September 2017, is lightweight, can be easily moved to wherever it is needed, and is mounted above the work area to save valuable laboratory floorspace.
Pick-and-place operations (e.g., from one machine to another or in and out of storage) are the primary use in pharma labs, comments Darrell Paul, market manager of Robotics and Motion at Omron Automation Americas. Laboratory systems need to handle multiple task changes, using solutions such as mobile carts for automating different machines and 3D-vision-based calibration for changing work environments, says Paul. “3D-vision calibration is achieved with a 2D camera that measures a known object and uses that to determine a 3D position. An example is a tray-stacking application where the robot can load/unload a tray of parts, then remove the tray, 3D-calibrate the depth of the next tray, then begin unloading again. This system eliminates the need for rigid fixtures and additional sensors,” explains Paul.
When considering using automation, clearly defining the objectives for the project and the tasks for the robot/automation are key. “Equally important is to think through how you want the humans to engage and interact with the equipment,” says Garrett.
In addition to defining the scientific process used in a new system, identifying the handling requirements, such as how to move something from point A to point B and the sample loading characteristics of the instruments, is key, adds Ouren. “Once you have this information, find a scheduling software package that matches both the instruments and the process. We’ve seen a big improvement in the breadth of capabilities of software in recent years. Taking the time to find the right software simplifies training of operators, increases the number of users, and creates an opportunity for higher efficiency.”
1. J. Tilley, “Automation, robotics, and the factory of the future,” www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/operations/our-insights/automation-robotics-and-the-factory-of-the-future, accessed Sept. 25, 2018.