Automated R&D and testing laboratories where cobots work alongside operators are no longer a vision of the future, but rather a reality of the present. Whether they are used to support development activities aimed at discovering new medicaments, collaborative solutions are already changing the way we operate and, ultimately, pharmaceutical manufacturing as we know it. Easy to program and install, they are also ideal for entry-level automation applications.
Collaborative and industrial robots are increasingly used in a wide range of industrial activities. In the last decade, the global sales volume of industrial robots tripled, with up to 422,000 units shipped worldwide every year. Cobots represent nearly 5% of this total and this is continuing to increase annually.
The high adoption rate for robotic solutions is primarily driven by the vast benefits they can deliver. Robots improve productivity and throughput while delivering high accuracy and reproducibility, leading to consistent production quality.
Collaborative robot solutions are particularly attractive in the pharmaceutical sector. In effect, manufacturing companies in this sector accounted for 66.9% of the entire pharmaceutical robot market in 2020 and it is anticipated to be the fastest growing in the period from 2021 to 2028. While traditional industrial robots held 64.1% of the market share in 2020, many pharmaceutical companies have been replacing them with cobots to increase flexibility and efficiency.
In addition, they typically require smaller initial investments, particularly if used in R&D or testing laboratories, where process revalidation is not required. They are also easier to integrate into existing facilities, as no physical barriers are required to ensure a safe working environment. One of the biggest advantages, however, is how intuitive and easy they are to use and interact with.
Making programming instinctive
Cobots utilise visual programming languages and graphical user interfaces that let users sequence the process and manipulate key functions without any coding. This significantly reduces programming complexity. For example, Mitsubishi Electric’s MELFA Assista cobot is coupled with an intuitive, touch-enabled engineering software, called RT VisualBox. This software supports the creation of operating sequences by linking block diagrams in a chain of events.
External devices, such as vision systems, can be connected to the cobot by using a software wizard within RT VisualBox that guides them through each step of the setup process. It is also possible to automatically perform key functions, such as the calibration of a coordinate system using Artificial Intelligence (AI).
To make things even easier, the MELFA Assista offers an additional hand-guided teaching function. With it, the cobot can be manually guided into a position, which is then added to the work sequence by pressing a button on the robotic arm.
These functionalities help operators create even highly sophisticated applications without any prior programming knowledge. Installation and setup can be streamlined and businesses can start using them almost instantly to improve medicament development and quality control activities. These elements are also extremely beneficial to companies at the beginning of their digital transformation journey and help users grow their confidence and skills in factory automation. There is no need for operators to have a high level of expertise in robotics or programming.
This also helps companies to develop their own in-house expertise and evolve over time, which can then support the use of more complex solutions, such as conventional industrial robots. Ultimately, businesses can increase their automation literacy and create highly effective setups that meet their specific needs and requirements. The implementation of robots in laboratories, for example, can then support their use in production lines, offering a quick return on investment (ROI) and making revalidation a successful investment.
Finally, the ease of use of a cobot such as the MELFA Assista can be key in meeting current and future workforce training requirements. Being able to work with robots, and all other automation components that make up smart factories, will be essential for the plant engineers of tomorrow. This means being able to set up these machines, interact and inspect them, as well as conduct maintenance activities.
Improving skill provision systems and upgrading education policies to advance technology skills is therefore becoming increasingly important. Collaborative robots can further support workforce development, as they remove entry barriers and contribute to increased ‘robot literacy’. By implementing cobots, forward-thinking businesses can benefit from automated processes and also assist their staff in developing key skills, adding value to their operations in the long run.