Automation 4 Robot Applications in the Pharma Industry
The pharmaceutical industry is changing rapidly and so are the equipment used in the production space. Robots are being constantly updated with new and advanced features to deliver contamination-free and high-quality drugs quickly and efficiently to the end consumer.
Everyone came to know how important the pharmaceutical industry is when Covid-19 struck the entire world. Yes, it is this sector that saved the world from the global pandemic by producing the right vaccines in record time. Although there were many next-gen technologies that were used in the production of these vaccines, robots remain one of the most integral technologies of today’s pharma sector owing to its numerous advantages.
Stringent laws in the pharma industry
Medicines play a crucial role in the health of a patient and hence, pharma manufacturers must ensure that these solutions are contamination-free and are produced with the highest possible quality. In this background, the European Union has introduced Annex 1 which is a guideline for good manufacturing practice for medicinal products for human and veterinary use. This also applies to active substances and finished dosage forms. The revised guideline also mentions in-depth details about a Contamination Control Strategy (CCS) which will help to prevent contamination of finished products. Nevertheless, this CCS will be challenging for the industry to implement as it mentions about various segments right from equipment and process design to corrective and preventive actions.
The guideline also encourages the use of robotic systems to increase the protection of drugs from microbial contamination and to ensure its high quality. All set to come into force on August 25, 2023, this regulation is expected to increase the demand for robots not only in the EU pharma space significantly but also across the world as the global pharma market tries to compete with different players and regions.
Robotic applications in the sector
Pick and place: This is probably the most popular application in the pharmaceutical industry across the globe. High speed and efficient robots are used to pick up different products from conveyor belts into the production space or vice-versa and can also be used for sorting of various pharma items in unstructured environments. A recent innovation in this space is ABB’s Robotic Item Picker which is based on artificial intelligence and the machine vision technology. Boasting of a picking rate of up to 1,400 unsorted items per hour, the solution fully automates complex picking and placing of a wide range of items such as blister packs and boxes with high accuracy in dynamic and unstructured environments, shares a press release by ABB. Human supervision is not required and the whole solution comprises a robot, suction grippers, and a proprietary machine vision software.
Primary packaging: Packaging is a crucial process in the production cycle and one which requires precision and accuracy as it can damage drugs stored inside blisters or spill medicines that are placed inside vials, bottles or pouches in case of faulty packaging. The task of filling and capping medicine bottles and vials is a monotonous task and robots can help here by automating the process so that factory employees are free to undertake other productive tasks in the manufacturing process. Secondly, each bottle or vial is filled and closed with precision and at a much faster speed. Steriline, the Italian company specializing in the production of complete lines for the aseptic processing of injectable products, has introduced RVFCM50, a robotic vial filling and capping machine under isolator. With a capacity to process up to 2,400 pcs/h, the solution comprises three robotic arms.
A press release by Steriline explains that once the vials are washed and depyrogenated, the first of three robotic arms grasp two vials at a time and places them under the filling heads, which are linked to two peristaltic pumps that potentially allow infinite capacity filling. This step happens directly on two weighing cells, so that the filling volume can be checked in real-time during filling operations and the recipe parameters can be met. Once they have been properly filled, the vials are moved to the second robotic arm for the stoppering process and then to the third robotic arm for capping, adds the release.
Secondary and end of line packaging: Robots are also used for secondary packaging i.e. medicines stored in blisters or vials (primary packaging) are packed in paperboard boxes or cardboard boxes, etc. It’s an exterior layer of protection which helps to keep the medicines safe. End-of-line packaging such as casepacking as well as palletizing and de-palletizing can also be carried out by robots. An example of secondary packaging is Marchesini Group’s Unica machine. The robotized packaging line offers two functions: deep draw thermoforming and cartoning as well as product and tray robotized feeding systems in a single monoblock, according to the company’s website.
Careful examination: In the pharma industry, the inspection process is also important. If not carried out properly, it can lead to a loss in reputation as well as money if the medicines are recalled by the firm due to defects in the final product. Robots are assigned this task in order to automate the system and ensure consistency so that patients are delivered high quality drugs without any flaws.
In the manufacturing zone, robots play an essential role and it’s one technology that cannot be ignored by the pharma industry if they want to efficiently produce safe and high-quality drugs without any contamination in a shorter period of time.