A cobot assistant: The latest innovative solution for medical device manufacturing
Industry 5.0 and a greater focus on user-friendliness make robotics more attractive for inspection, materials transport, and other tasks.
August 9, 2022
Sponsored by Omron
One of the great benefits of Industry 5.0 is that it provides the means for robots to help humans work better and faster than ever before. The introduction of collaborative robots (or “cobots” for short) dramatically lowered the bar for automating manual processes by making robotic technology much more accessible and easier to implement alongside existing workers and processes.
With the return on investment being easier to justify, manufacturers are looking for ways to automate more tasks. The inherent capabilities of cobots allow them to be assigned to multiple applications and be moved around the facility for different jobs at various times of the day.
What’s more, the cobots themselves are further galvanizing the transition to Industry 5.0. Manufacturers no longer need to hire an outside robotic engineer with C++ programming skills or an individual who has been in the industry for many years, since many cobot applications can be implemented simply by training in-house talent.
How cobots are improving medical device production efficiency
The medical device industry’s unique device identification (UDI) requirements have prompted an increase in demand for part marking solutions. One way to do this is with laser markers. In a traditional, manual process setting, a worker would manually load the parts into the marker, wait for the marking process to complete, and then take the parts out. As these tasks require no higher-level skill, they are the type where cobots should be deployed.
Upon being wheeled up to a laser marker, a cobot will look for a ‘landmark’ or fiducial that gives it an understanding of 3D space. It can look at the laser marker screen or pilot lights to determine the status of the laser marker. When the machine is ready, the cobot will open the laser marker door to insert the components and monitor the visual cues that the operator was using. Once the task is completed, it will open the door remove the components and place them on the rack. The cobot can operate just like the human operator, in the sense that it understands visual cues to open doors and press buttons.
How cobots improve inspection processes
One highly repetitive and mundane (yet essential) task in medical device manufacturing is parts inspection. It can be very challenging for human workers to stay focused for long hours as they look at the same part repeatedly, trying to find scratches or other flaws that are critical to manufacturing. Often, manufacturers have the same part inspected several times by several different workers to ensure they are capturing 100% of failures.
Cobots can be used in a couple of ways for inspection-related tasks. One by using the built-in camera or third-party camera on the arm itself, which can look at the part from various angles using different lighting scenarios to ensure that it has no defects. Alternatively, a cobot could pick up the part, present it to a fixed camera, and manipulate the part above the camera while looking for defects. Unlike human workers, a cobot will operate at a consistent speed and performance level for many hours at a time.
Historically, quality inspection was a manual process performed by people. An operator would look at a part and determine if it was made properly, free of scratches and with the proper labels containing the right markings applied correctly. Operators might also use calliper tools to check basic dimensions. With the introduction of machine vision, parts of the visual inspection process can now be automated. These solutions also allow manufacturers to keep records and images of every part that has been inspected.
With built-in vision, cobots have the ability to mimic what a skilled operator is capable of, but to a higher degree of repeatability. A cobot follows a very precise path that measures thousands of data points along the edge of the component in any given application. This would be very difficult to do without the repeatability and motion capabilities of a robot.
When it comes to inspecting a tray of products, manufacturers either need multiple cameras or a single camera with a very high resolution. Now with cobots, we can go through the entire tray and look closely at each component, extracting the detailed information we need to determine if the part is good or not. A cobot is also capable of picking up individual parts in the tray and presenting them to a fixed camera to check the quality from all points of view.
How cobots can mitigate challenges related to the labour shortage
The current labour shortage we are experiencing goes beyond a need for factory floor employees. Highly skilled experts are not only very hard to come by right now, they often come at a premium. With some minimal training, the operators who are on the floor with the cobots (and who have the best understanding of the manufacturing needs) can be tasked to do program modifications.
One of the critical issues with the labour shortage is that it can be difficult to optimize the utilization of existing labour. When workers are simply moving raw materials from one area of the facility to another location or moving work-in-process between stations, they are performing non-value-added tasks, meaning the labour is not adding any real value to the device being manufactured. If a cobot can help with these tasks, manufacturers can free up their team to focus on more important and skilled steps that require human intervention.
Manufacturers can also consider implementing AMRs, otherwise known as autonomous mobile robots. These self-guided mobile robots can bring raw material from the warehouse to the start of production, move parts between work cells, and deliver finished products to the packaging and labelling areas. Since they have an internal map of the manufacturing facility, they do not need to stay on a predetermined route. Rather, they can self-guide to a called location to take care of time-sensitive transportation needs.
AMRs come in all sizes, from relatively low payloads like 60 kg up to 1500 kg and beyond. They are considered collaborative because they work with people and around people and do not need dedicated traffic lanes. So, anytime you see an individual wheeling a cart throughout a manufacturing facility, you have an opportunity to redeploy that individual into a more skilled role that requires critical thinking or interpersonal skills.
With help from cobots, the number of workers in small work cells can be reduced, and the surplus workers can focus instead on less common tasks requiring greater dexterity or mental flexibility while effectively overseeing the operations that the cobots are performing. In this way, the individual is moving from a labourer role in the work cell to a supervisor role (with cobots as the new labourers).
Cobots are both easy to work alongside and relatively easy to operate. With just a week of training, operators can be empowered to make fine-tuning adjustments for pick points, product sizes, and even some basic decision-making. If we can leverage the knowledge of the individual who once worked in the cell to help ensure the cobot cell is running optimally, we can take advantage of information that is only obtained through hands-on experience.
Benefits of adding cobots to the manufacturing process
The medical device industry produces many small and delicate sub-components, and the handling of these sub-components is critical to the devices’ long-term viability. If the sub-components are inserted or handled improperly, there can be real issues. Repeatability and reliability are inherent capabilities of most robots, and they can help build a very robust solution for handling delicate parts with built-in vision, force sensors, and other added tools.
Another challenge is that some of the tasks in the components production process are very tedious, and manufacturers can experience higher turnover rates as a result. Cobots can help address not only the cost associated with improper quality inspection but also reduce the training costs of the new workers and subsequent costs of any newly hired individuals.
Rob Sepa serves as the life sciences industry sales manager for Omron Americas, where he oversees a strategic team focused on medical devices, lab automation, pharmaceuticals as well as clinical and in-vitro diagnostics. During his 17 years at Omron, he has developed workflow automation, validation and traceability solutions for global Life Sciences companies. Rob has an extensive background in automation, with 10+ years prior to joining Omron in 2004. He graduated from San Diego State University with an MBA in Marketing and Finance.