End-of-line packaging using robotic pick-and-place is gaining acceptance as the go-to packaging system for the pharmaceutical and medical device industries — and the reasons are clear.
Robotic pick and place offers a more compact, efficient design; they bring a higher level of cleanliness to end-of-line applications and have a proven track record of reliability, durability and accuracy.
But these industries aren’t just asking for robotics alone, they’re looking for a level of expertise to take ownership of the design and implementation of the entire end-of-line system. That’s easier said than done as this degree of project management often involves integrating equipment from many different suppliers, not to mention balancing expectations of all related parties.
However, this is a trend we’re seeing, and with the push for many pharma and medical device companies to operate leaner than ever before, allowing outside vendors to take the lead in project integration will likely continue.
MERGING END-OF-LINE WITH PICK AND PLACE
As implied by its name, end-of-line packaging refers to the final packaging stages before a product is shipped. For example, an end-of-line company can build a machine to package already wrapped syringes, a machine to stack those cases on a pallet and a final machine to wrap them in stretch wrap, making the syringes ready for shipping. Robotic pick and place streamlines this entire process.
Robotic pick and place have become a common fixture in today’s manufacturing environments. Gone are the days of spending hours troubleshooting and repairing broken down robots. Rather, the advanced engineering found in modern robots, like FANUC, bring a level of reliability that you literally don’t have to touch them or know the inner-workings of them because they just run. Robotic systems have proven performance, along with the flexibility to work multiple SKUs with little to no changeover points compared to a conventional hard automation system. Additionally, many companies don’t have the staff with the skillset anymore to accomplish that more complex changeover. Customers would rather have equipment that can perform changeovers with a push of a button. These are just a few reasons why so many industries are using them to automate their processes.
Using 2D cameras or 3D sensors, robots are able to identify, inspect, distinguish, select and reach the right items within their work envelope to be picked and placed in preparation for packaging. Robots excel at orientating items in a prescribed pattern quickly and consistently, operate cleanly and provide a level of repeatability that’s critical to the pharmaceutical and medical device industries.
While robotic systems perform at a rate that’s difficult for a labor workforce to duplicate, by in large those employees aren’t losing their jobs. Rather, we’re seeing companies repurpose its people into different areas where they’re more needed. That’s because finding strong employees who possess the right skills can be challenging, and when you have them, the last thing companies want to do is let them walk out the door. Robotic pick and place systems are bringing greatly increased automation to their end-of-line packaging, while relocating good workers to other areas where their skills can be put to better use.
LARGER ROLE FOR SUPPLIERS
The push for suppliers to accept full project management on the design, integration and implementation of end-of-line packaging systems is driven in part by a trimmed-down workforce. Finding strong project engineers with the experience and time needed to head up projects on the scale of end-of-line packaging with robotic pick and place can be a challenge for some companies. In recent years we’ve seen this across many industries, including pharma and medical.
This trend has opened up the opportunity for suppliers to assume the dual roles of project management and integrator for full end-of-line applications; some RFPs request someone to own the whole line from the time their products are in the primary package all the way to the pallet. That’s a big endeavor to undertake, as the project has now expanded beyond your specific area of expertise. Over the past few years, we’ve learned to embrace this larger role, whereas other suppliers shy away it.
That’s due to the fact you’re now accepting responsibility for other people’s equipment. Whether it’s simply adding a checkweigher or inkjet coder, or integrating a larger component to the puzzle, if that piece fails, your whole line fails. So, you really have to have the appetite to do that. Also, you need to have the right OEM partners and relationships in place to assemble that fully integrated line together.
Another aspect to consider is customization. No two applications are alike, and the same goes with customers. Customizing their end-of-line packaging is common as a way to further enhance their application; this is something suppliers have to be cognizant of if they assume the integrator role on a project. It’s a risk versus reward, and the rewards are good, as long as you manage and mitigate the risks of the project.
As the shortage of highly technical resources is strained with end users in the pharmaceutical and medical sector, the need for the machine supplier to provide a “full validation package” is becoming a more popular offering. This puts even more responsibility on the suppliers.
THE CASE FOR TESTING
One of the main concerns customers have with their new end-of-line packaging system is if it will meet their targeted performance and accuracy goals. Those concerns can only be answered after the system has been properly tested through a FAT (factory acceptance test).
The goal of a FAT, or pre-installation test, is to replicate, as close as possible, the actual environment in which the end-of-line system will be operating in your facility. Conducting tests this way provides results that give a fairly precise view of how accurate the system will be when the equipment is operational in a facility. The best testing results are seen when conditions most closely mimic your actual environment, thus, eliminating variables that can affect the outcome. FATs serve as a good way to train your employees on operating the equipment, as well as learning preventive maintenance procedures. FATs are particularly important for the pharma and medical device industries, as they need to follow strict guidelines for approving equipment.
AUTOMATION IN THE RIGHT INDUSTRIES
End-of-line packaging systems outfitted with robotic pick-and-place has a bright future within the pharma and medical device industries. It offers a clean design and the reliability and durability that’s needed to eliminate costly downtime. With shrinking staffs, customers in these industries are looking to outsource the project management to suppliers that can assume ownership for all facets. Those suppliers that have the industry knowledge and existing partnerships will continue to be successful in designing and implementing an end-of-line packaging system that meets the needs of these industries.