Automation lends itself to the manufacture of mass produced disposable medical devices and the bulk processing of samples. The main reasons for this are speed and repeatability, and removing contamination risks in a clean production or processing environments. Self driving robots are even autonomously delivering parts to clean areas in life sciences applications.
Servo-controlled automation enables packaging machines and pick-and-place robot cells to move faster than the manual production or loading processes. Hence, there is a limiting factor to further increases in speed and repeatability for fully automated processes.
As robots become more flexible, compact, and easier to teach it becomes possible to transfer more human tasks to them. Automated systems are also making use of artificial intelligence (IA). They are becoming better at autonomous decision making and can develop new, more efficient work flows. They can also call for service and maintenance on demand, rather than relying on routine maintenance.
These capabilities increase operational efficiency and consequentially improvements in competitiveness and ultimately profitability. What is changing though is the level at which self driving robots are integrating effectively into environment containing people. Taking the functionality offered by Mitsubishi Electric’s MELFA family of self driving robots as an example. The latest generation combines the benefits of speed and accuracy, with the safety of cooperative and collaborative robots.
Standard articulated arm and SCARA style robots are specifically suitable to work in clean room environments. Safety sensors and safety control via the controller allow them to work at full speed without any physical guarding. When personnel approach for a visual inspection, loading, unloading or maintenance checks for example the robot can react by automatically slowing down and then coming to a stop as the person gets closer. On leaving the area, the robot returns to full speed without any re-start routine or manual safety interlock problems.
Robots are flexible and fully programmable allowing each application to safely work and interact with people in different modes of operation. They can change how they move and react to suit the task the person must complete, not the other way around. This is already having a significant impact on the market, accelerating the up-take of robots in medical device manufacturing industries.
Self driving robots
Mitsubishi is supplying everything from a robot arm that sits on a packaging machine and inserts devices into blister packs ready for sealing. Its self driving robot arm mounted on an AGV moves around production areas autonomously delivering to named and unmanned workstations.
The next stage is integration of IIoT and Industry 4.0 solutions where robots and machines interconnect, transcending their physical locations. Mitsubishi Electric is already using Edge Computing and various forms of AI such as the IBM Watson online AI service. Built-in machine learning and physical teaching functions support building complex processes quickly without having to hard code routines and parameters as in the past.
This level of digitalisation allows Mitsubishi to create interactive safety glasses with augmented reality displays for routine servicing. They also support voice activation for robot function control. It is reasonable to assume that in the future, users will interact with robots in different ways and talking to them about what they are doing.