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Automation trends in pharmaceutical production


Automation trends in pharmaceutical production

The pharmaceutical sector is constantly adapting to market requirements that change frequently and quickly. Changes are being influenced by factors such as regulation, skills availability and digital transformation. To turn these challenges into opportunities, companies are increasingly relying on solutions such as human-robot collaboration and the use of artificial intelligence to manage intensive data processing.

Michael Suer, Director Life Science EMEA, Factory Automation, Mitsubishi Electric Europe B.V., looks at four key technology trends within the pharmaceutical industry that are having a steadily growing impact: collaborative robots, cooperative robots, artificial intelligence and edge computing technology.

One clear trend in the pharmaceutical sector is the increased demand for collaborative robots (cobots) for direct use next to humans, doing everything from dosing, mixing, counting, dispensing, inspecting and marking medications in pharmaceutical laboratories. The cost-effectiveness and ease of programming of these cobots mean they are not restricted solely to use in large facilities but are equally suitable for use in small labs or in multi-labs.
With their inherent safety features, cobots can work alongside human operators without presenting any danger. In contrast, industrial robots have traditionally needed to be operated behind physical barriers to ensure worker safety. But this requirement can have an impact on productivity, as the robot has to be stopped before it can be approached. In addition, there are complex restart procedures required after an emergency stop or if protective barriers have been opened.

Manufacturers are looking to address this limitation through the use of optical safety systems in place of physical barriers. Laser scanners are increasingly being used to monitor defined zones around the robot: as a human enters the outer zone, a speed reduction function slows the robot down. If that person continues on into the area where there is a danger of direct contact with the robot, the robot stops immediately. Once the area is clear, the robot resumes operation quickly and automatically.

Artificial intelligence is a further trend that could impact on the pharmaceutical sector. In robotics, artificial intelligence can provide the ability to react appropriately to unforeseen and non-programmed situations. This AI technology is also offered within Mitsubishi Electric’s MELIPC edge computing solution. That provides a gateway between the plant floor and the higher-level systems, while offering additional functions for monitoring and analysis of extracted data (data mining) from the shop floor level.

Against the backdrop of a desire to increase OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) by means of digitalization, there is a high demand for data mining from production. This is real-time data that needs to be acted upon, but it is also often sensitive data which needs to be handled securely. Here, edge computing offers a solution, enabling internal evaluation of sensitive recipe, batch and production data within pharmaceutical manufacturing. Edge computing solutions like the MELIPC from Mitsubishi Electric provide valuable information that can be extracted on the status of wear parts for example, enabling predictive maintenance strategies with significant potential for reducing service costs.


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