Advances in automation and robotics are helping manufacturers improve quality, fill labor shortages and promote personnel.
Matt Knutson, Donatelle
Medical device companies are competing for workers in one of the tightest-ever job markets. Meanwhile, there is pent-up demand for medical products worldwide due to increasing need along with pandemic-fueled supply chain problems.
There is a way medical device companies can overcome labor challenges and fulfill orders to take advantage of market demand. High-volume production facilities have long relied on help from multimillion-dollar automated assembly lines and robotics. For decades, those systems were too expensive or impractical for medium- and low-production runs.
But robotic technology has advanced and expanded to the point where flexible automation makes sense for lower volumes and to bolster workforces.
How robots benefit manufacturers and workers
Many have feared advances in manufacturing would take away jobs and push more costly and fallible human workers out. However, automation systems and humans are both needed to operate manufacturing facilities efficiently, consistently and safely. Not everything can or should be fully automated, and not everything can or should be done by humans.
Flexible automation allows manufacturers to move workers off menial, repetitive tasks, and retrain them for higher-level roles that require cognitive agility and decision-making. Rather than “stealing” jobs from humans, automation and robotics can promote us.
Recently, one medical manufacturer with a product family produced through a labor-intensive, manual assembly and insert molding process invested in new molding equipment. The team deployed an automation cell with a cobot (collaborative robot) to perform many repetitive tasks previously completed by a human operator. The switch resulted in consistent cycle times — which is key in injection molding — and a consistent level of quality with automatic separation of non-conforming parts. It also met the customer’s pricing target by reducing costs over prior models. In addition, the manufacturer’s investment helped alleviate the labor shortages it faced and enabled them to train plant floor employees for more complex tasks needed in higher-level positions.
Maximizing and optimizing resources with automation
There are generally two types of robots used for medical device production: industrial robots and cobots. Medtech manufacturers often deploy industrial robots in automation cells. They require hard guarding and/or light curtains to prevent injuries.
Cobots can be programmed to learn multiple tasks, and with built-in controls can safely work alongside human colleagues in production. Generally, manufacturers use cobots to perform repetitive tasks that may need to be moved between jobs or work centers. Setup is quick and easy. With proper risk assessment, they do not require hard guarding. Cobots often are deployed for loading/unloading inserts into a thermoplastic or liquid silicone molding process, and automated inspection with machine vision systems or pad printing.
Cobots have revolutionized manufacturing automation cost-effectiveness. Cobots are far less expensive than a full-fledged robot and easy to program. As a result, they take over menial jobs while improving precision in tedious tasks and increasing the overall safety of personnel and equipment. Before cobots came into their own, manufacturers spent much time and money designing and implementing safety systems to protect personnel and equipment from hazards. Now cobots can perform many of these tasks.
Once a cobot is programmed, assessed/tested, approved and deployed, it’s ready to handle whatever task it’s assigned. It’s possible to reassign a cobot as needed.
Deploying robots compliantly and cost-effectively
Companies need to ensure internal staff or contact manufacturing partners have the knowledge and expertise to deploy and maintain their automation systems compliantly. In highly-regulated markets like the medical device industry, there are numerous, often complex regulations and international standards for automated systems in manufacturing applications. Therefore, proper automation system installation and operational and performance qualification, including process validation, are musts.
Choosing when, where and how to deploy robots requires strategic planning. The goal is to maximize operations and productivity and optimize personnel. Manufacturers should keenly focus on putting employees into roles that require cognitive agility and real-time decision-making. These roles generally are more enriching, which can help recruiting and retention.
Take inspections, for example. Those that are straightforward, such as measuring a known feature or confirming the presence or absence of a component, can be done efficiently and effectively by robots. But that’s repetitive and often tedious work for humans. However, an inspection process to determine whether foreign material is inside a sealed package can be difficult and nuanced. All the surfaces of the part need to be assessed in all directions. A human can hold the package and tip it every which way, and put it under a microscope if they think they see something. A human has the ability to infinitely manipulate the product being inspected, whereas automation would typically follow a sequence and programming. It’s possible to achieve quality and consistency through thoughtful and deliberate deployment of automation with vision systems.
Humans are needed to design, maintain and oversee operations. This is where the labor shortages are critical and intensely competitive. Manufacturers need technicians who are well-versed in setting up and adjusting systems and engineers with the deep expertise and knowledge to develop, qualify, troubleshoot and oversee the systems. They also need skilled personnel on the production and assembly lines who can operate and work alongside machines. All of these roles now require a higher level of training and education than the tasks that machines can now perform.
Medical device manufacturers can automate many critical tasks, enabling the exact operation to be done in the same manner at the same time. Compared to a multi-shift operation with a variety of skilled human operators, they could be doing the same task, but slightly differently or vastly differently. A robot will do what it is programmed to do repeatedly and consistently. It won’t get fatigued, distracted or bored. The endgame is improved productivity to meet supply and demand, reduced risk and better allocation of resources for all involved.Matt Knutson is vice president of manufacturing operations at Donatelle, where he is responsible for production, manufacturing engineering and automation, quality, maintenance and facilities. Knutson has designed, implemented and overseen implementations of both fixed automation and flexible automation systems throughout his career.
The opinions expressed in this post are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of MedicalDesignandOutsourcing.com or its employees.