What recent developments improve the robot's dexterity

Robots in healthcare

Drug and medical device manufacturers are under high pressure: They need innovative solutions to optimize the efficiency of their operations and the quality of their products while keeping costs under control. Short research and development times and an ever faster time-to-market make things more difficult - not to mention the lack of qualified specialists. Robot-assisted automation can help master all of these challenges and increase safety for staff. Because: Compared to manual execution, robots are able to complete monotonous and repetitive tasks up to 50 percent faster. This not only increases productivity, but also enables the well-trained staff to focus on more productive tasks.

Precise, fast, flexible, tireless and ready for use 24 hours a day - thanks to these attributes, robots are ideal for repetitive activities. However, they are just as flexible enough to switch between different “jobs” as needed. Due to the latest technological advances, they can no longer be compared with their large and heavy predecessors, which were primarily developed for the automotive industry. Today robots require a much smaller footprint, are more flexible, have integrated vision systems and are also available in hygienic, washable versions.

SCARAs (Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm) are an example of this. They can be mounted on tables and, thanks to their small footprint, fit well into rooms with limited space, such as those typically found in pharmaceutical production plants. Regardless of whether you are dealing with tablets, test tubes or injection syringes - SCARAs act quickly and carry out point-to-point movements precisely, such as pick-and-place, parts transfer and parts handling.

Equipped with collaborative properties, robots are increasingly being used in laboratories and medical facilities. In many applications they get by without safety fences and work reliably alongside their human colleagues. In addition, the collaboration enables a plus in flexibility and efficiency, since humans and robots share the same workspaces and can even work together on the same tasks - without having to accept any compromises in terms of speed and safety.

Modern robots can no longer only be found in production environments or logistics centers. They are increasingly being integrated into medical laboratory applications, support research institutions in universities and the pharmaceutical industry, as well as examinations and tests in the healthcare sector. Current generations of robots can perform multiple tasks, are easy to program, and may even soon be able to manage and monitor other laboratory equipment.

For general laboratory tasks, for example, the collaborative robot YuMi® from ABB is able to carry out a number of repetitive, filigree and time-consuming laboratory tasks, such as B. Dosing, mixing and pipetting, assembling sterile instruments and loading and unloading centrifuges. With the help of robot-supported systems and applications, temperature-sensitive work steps can also be carried out: For example, the robot automatically inserts samples into special ovens and then removes them again. This ensures that the samples are incubated under the correct conditions.

YuMi is not only the fastest collaborative robot on the market right now - its design is inherently safe. Thanks to padded arms without crushing points and collision detection, YuMi can work safely with its human colleagues in relatively unstructured environments without the need for additional safety measures, such as protective fences. YuMi can do a multitude of repetitive tasks at high cycle rates, even if these require human-like skill or change at short notice. In collaboration with his human colleagues in the laboratory, he supports, for example, device maintenance, removal and storage, and sample transport and storage.

Notably, researchers from the European Institute of Oncology have used YuMi to help staff prepare for an immunoassay. This is used to quantify virus antibodies. The assay preparation turned out to be extremely time-consuming, as the laboratory staff had to carry out several, recurring work steps beforehand, including washing the corrugated sheets. YuMi was able to take over the washing process easily and reliably.

Meanwhile, YuMi is also in use at Copan Diagnostics in the USA. Integrated in HEPA-filtered biosafety workstations, the robot handles tissue, bone and sterile fluid samples and transports smears and blood cultures. As soon as the technical employee has scanned a barcode, the robot automatically places certain plates and materials for sample inoculation. YuMi then brushes the panels and passes them on to a system that completes the transport process.

From laboratory tests to product development and manufacturing to sorting and picking for packaging and shipping - the fact that robots can take on an ever-growing spectrum of tasks limits human intervention to a minimum. This also reduces the risk of contamination.

Such incidents of contamination, which can usually result in lengthy product recalls, undoubtedly have a devastating effect on the image of any company. Strict legal requirements also require complete traceability in order to track down counterfeiters of drugs and medical products.

With the use of automated systems and processes, companies can considerably minimize risks - such as human error, forgery or manipulation. Thanks to integrated image processing, robots are able to scan barcodes on the packaging that contain all the tracing and transaction data for the respective product. With this data, the operations management system can in turn prevent counterfeit ingredients from being used within a production process or contaminated products being passed on to dealers or consumers.

No question about it: Safety plays an absolutely crucial role at all levels of the healthcare system, e.g. in production lines for medical products as well as laboratories and hospitals. In order to minimize the risk to personnel from harmful substances and biohazardous materials, robots can take on tasks that are potentially dangerous for employees.

For example, a leading Danish enzyme manufacturer successfully uses two so-called RobotFillers from Feige GmbH to automatically fill its products into kegs. Why? On the one hand, the resulting fumes can endanger employees. On the other hand, there was not enough space available for a conventional filling system. The entire filling process had to be automated accordingly and limited to a small working space.

The central component of every filling unit is the 4-axis robot IRB 660 from ABB with a payload of 180 kg. The RobotFiller starts its work from above as soon as the pallet is in the operating position. First, the IRB 660 moves along the calculated coordinates and calculates the positions of the bung openings on the drums. It then determines the height of the pallet and fills each container using a filling valve. Once the filling is complete, the IRB 660 exchanges the filling valve for a screw unit and then attaches a metal cap.

With the integration of vision systems, the range of applications for robots is continuously expanding - to new areas in pharmaceutical production and packaging. A US pharmaceutical company recently implemented a special variant of the so-called flexa cartoning machine, with two ABB robots of the type IRB 360 as the centerpiece. The cell developed and installed by the Italian specialist Industria Macchine Automatiche uses image processing technology from Cognex. In this way, the robot is able to pick up pipettes that arrive in bulk on a belt. Particularly positive: the cell easily exceeds the target speed of 150 pieces per minute specified by the customer. You can easily swap out the gripper head to handle a range of similar products.

Automation solutions are also becoming increasingly important for the pharmaceutical industry when it comes to cost-effective logistics - all the more important against the backdrop of the booming online trade. For example, Sweden's largest online pharmacy, Apotea, delivers more than 170,000 packages to its customers every week. With the implementation of three ABB industrial robots of the type IRB 4600, which reliably distribute 35,000 parcels daily in certain grid boxes, the company was able to increase its productivity by 30 percent.

According to internal studies by ABB, the global market is expected to grow to almost 60,000 medical robots for non-operative applications, which corresponds to a four-fold increase compared to 2018.

In October 2019, ABB opened a new research center at the Texas Medical Center (TMC) in the USA to work with the best minds from science and medicine to develop new robot and automation concepts for hospitals and medical facilities, laboratories, the pharmaceutical industry and manufacturers of medical devices . The TMC is the largest medical center in the world with ten million patients treated each year.

“Nowadays, robots are available in more and more hygienic designs and can cope with an increasingly broad range of tasks. Robot-assisted automation helps the entire healthcare and pharmaceutical industry to make production, test procedures, and research and development more efficient and productive, ”emphasizes Marc Segura, Managing Director Consumer Segments & Service Robotics at ABB. “Together with our partners, the ABB team at the Houston Healthcare Research Center is researching new applications and supporting the development of innovative robotic solutions. Our goal is to reduce manual processes that have to be carried out by humans and to optimize the cost and accuracy of laboratory work. This increases patient satisfaction and ultimately benefits their safety. "

Prototypes that ABB has unveiled since the Healthcare Research Hub opened include YuMi robots, which can potentially help with cleaning centrifuges and handling test tubes. In addition, an ABB robot of the type IRB 1200 could pipette and transport liquids.

Another prototype in the range of healthcare robots from ABB is a mobile YuMi® robot. It was developed to support medical staff with laboratory and logistics tasks in hospitals. He can independently recognize his human colleagues and find his way around them. He learns to take different routes from one place to another. In addition, the robot can take on a wide range of recurring and time-consuming tasks, including preparing medication, loading and unloading centrifuges, pipetting, handling liquids and picking up and sorting test tubes.

The mobile YuMi could also be used in hospitals for a variety of logistics tasks. YuMi could, for example, dose medication, bring it to where it is needed in the hospital, provide medical supplies for hospital staff, or deliver bed linen directly to patients' rooms.

All of these common medical laboratory tasks could be performed through robotic automation by combining constant performance with greater flexibility and continuous operation. In this way, the throughput and quality can be increased and costs can be reduced at the same time. None of the prototypes are medical devices and are currently not available for sale.

Although YuMi and other robotic solutions from ABB can be used for a wide variety of purposes in healthcare, every medical device must undergo rigorous testing. This is the only way to ensure that it can safely and reliably fulfill its intended purpose before it hits the market. It is the sole responsibility of the medical device manufacturer to comply with all applicable laws, standards and guidelines.