Robots are steadily becoming one of the hottest development areas for major pharma suppliers. With smaller batches, personalized medicine, highly potent products and a high degree of flexibility, robots could offer us the solutions we’ve been waiting for.
Robots have been a point of both fascination and anxiety for many years now, with pop culture offering robotic characters that range from cute and useful to manipulative and violent. We’ve seen robots used for intelligence (C3p0 in Star Wars), robots as human guards (I, Robot), and who can forget the classic indestructible assassin robot (the Terminator).
Although most people enjoy a good robot story, robots in the real world continue to raise all kinds of questions. Although a robot revolution seems sci-fi, there is increasing discussion about the role of robots and automation in our everyday working lives.
Manufacturing robots joining the pharma industry
In many industries, like auto manufacturing, physical robots are very well established. These robots are fast, they are consistent and they are cost effective. Plus, circling back to the pharma industry, there is the added benefit that everything a robot does can be verified and accounted for.
Humans are smart – we made the robots what they are, after all. But we are unfortunately prone to mistakes. With human error it can be difficult to plot where and why a mistake happened, important in pharma where even minor mistakes can be extremely costly. Not only that but humans interacting with highly potent pharmaceutical ingredients is inevitably a health risk, and monotonous repetitive work is no fun for anybody.
So what kind of robots are available, and what will they do? How will we fit in alongside our new robot co-workers (or “cobots”)? What will this mean for the future of the pharma industry?
Traditionally robots were installed as part of other systems, and had to be locked behind cages to avoid humans getting caught up and injured in their processes. However a new breed of “collaborative robots” has now reached the pharma manufacturing world.
With advanced sensors and camera technology, collaborative robots can stand and work alongside lab workers safely. They are already used in the assembly and pack of devices, normally in a fixed position hooked up to power and other supplies. Cobots work within the field of their range and can be programmed without complex code – you can manually “show” the robot where and how it needs to move, or tap in instructions using a tablet.
In pharma, cobots could revolutionise the way we work. Since they tend to do repetitive, boring tasks (like the staging of leaflets, cartons and cases in packaging) their human counterparts can focus more on the intricate details that they are qualified for, and reprogramming the robots when flexible changes need to be put in place.
Part of the group above and officially named “autonomous mobile robots” these nifty movers are predominantly used for transporting goods – be that raw materials, equipment, or samples. They are both autonomous and wireless and can adapt to the surroundings around them. They won’t, for example, bump into things, but instead recalibrate their path to get around the obstacle.
Mobile robots are already used in some areas of pharma manufacturing, such as moving finished and semi-finished goods for shipping and transporting. Since they can work under any conditions (within reason), moving around in a cold warehouse with low humidity for long durations with no protection is no problem. As they become cheaper to install and integrate there is hope that they will be used from start to finish, receipt to disposal. They have even been used in cleanroom environments since the late 90’s, however the newest generation still need some adaptation to reach cleanroom standards.
“Pick and place” robots
These robots are relentless. They can pick up and move objects, transfer objects from one place to another and sort items in an assembly line 24/7. This speeds up processes and reduces costs while removing the risk of repetitive strain injury for human workers.
With the demand for small batches rising, both their flexibility and repeatability is a plus, since they can easily be adapted when new products arrive and continuously repeat operations without having to worry about human error. When designed for use in cleanroom environments they also significantly reduce the risk of human contamination, while keeping a digital record of all that they do. All of this is very important from a cGMP and FDA standpoint.
The future of pharma manufacturing - Pharma 4.0
Robots are not meant to replace people – people still need to be involved for many other manual operations and supporting the robotic systems. Using robots also reduces the need to move all operations to countries with lower labour costs, spreading work more evenly across the globe. But it is undeniable that robots will change the future of pharma and the way we work together.
This is because to stay competitive as an industry, we need to seriously consider the cost of manufacturing. Robots not only reduce labour costs, they also speed up operations and make sure our factories are aligned with cGMP. Pharma 4.0 is full of new challenges and opportunities - staying ahead of the game and embracing new methods could be the key to future success.