The Impact of Robotics on Biomedical Manufacturing: Quality, Safety, and Efficiency
Robotic manufacturing technology is evolving and expanding faster than ever. Worldwide, manufacturers race to adopt "Industry 4.0" technology, driving the rapid increase in "smart factories." A smart factory has fully integrated robotics, automation, AI, data mining, and industrial IoT technology, achieving multidisciplinary connected systems that are collaborative, responsive, and flexible. Robots can significantly boost predictability and accuracy and improve production consistency, resulting in exceptional quality and cost savings.
Globally, the United States has lagged behind other countries in adopting industrial robotics. Small to medium-sized US enterprises, representing 98.4% of domestic manufacturers, have been hesitant about robotics and Industry 4.0.
Beyond that, many companies involved in the production of plastic medical device components lack a comprehensive approach to this transformation. While cost considerations will always be a factor, it is imperative to acknowledge the vital nature of long-term investments in smart manufacturing to ensure the competitiveness of replacement part manufacturers.
Of particular significance to the healthcare industry, the integration of robotics holds the potential to elevate the quality standards of third-party replacement parts, ensuring the optimal performance of medical devices and, most importantly, safeguarding the well-being of patients.
How do robots enhance plastics manufacturing?
Injection molding robots range from simple linear machines to multi-axis robots. Linear machines perform a single operation and can be purchased off the shelf to perform the simplest tasks. Additional planes allow for multiple motions; for example, a 5-axis robot can move in 5 directions.
Examples of injection molding robot functions include:
- Part transferring
- Part detection
- Product quality checks
Higher-axis robots cost more, but manufacturers can program their specifications for unique designs, providing greater flexibility and adaptability. Fully customizable automation encourages innovation, enhances production efficiency, and supports the specific needs of healthcare end-users.
Some companies further customize automated technology by building and programming their own machines.
What are the benefits of using robotics in biomedical equipment manufacturing?
A leader in the industry, Elite Biomedical Solutions was an early adopter of advanced robotics. Currently transitioning to a full-fledged smart factory, the Elite team has seen widespread benefits from this investment across vectors. Aron Poarch, EBS Process Engineer, says, "It's all about safety, quality, and productivity."
In traditional manufacturing, most human labor hours are spent on machine-tending, or loading raw materials into the machine and removing the part once complete. In the case of injection molding, this involves performing repetitive tasks requiring high consistency while handling extremely hot materials and equipment.
Machine-tending robots, however, can perform these tasks with greater accuracy and consistency than humans. This reduces the risk of repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel, and lowers the chance of harmful workplace accidents.
Furthermore, transferring human workers from machine-tending and other repetitive tasks to more dynamic positions with greater responsibility is great for team morale. Higher morale relieves stress, reduces employee burnout, and positively affects job performance and productivity.
Better morale, better opportunities for workers
Nate Schlauch, Director of Manufacturing at EBS' sister company, Elite Precision Plastics, believes robotics will positively affect workers in the long run. "The industry is going to be forced to think smarter as a whole, and we're all going to have to adapt to the fact that certain jobs are all going to shift," says Schlauch.
"The robots and the AI are going to be the replacements. And the person who used to open the door all day will now be somebody who works with the AI robot. So they're no longer packing parts; they're now programming the robot. It'll lead to more meaningful opportunities in the future."
Quality is the most crucial reason to invest in robotics for biomedical device manufacturing. In the manufacturing process, quality is all about consistency. Human workers naturally need to interrupt cycles now and then to use the restroom, ask questions, etc. This can result in product errors. "If it's taking you twenty seconds longer because you had to go and tie your shoe, you're going to see the fallout from that," explains Poarch. "How bad is the defect? It could be minimal or it could be life threatening, but the consistency you get with robotics usually eliminates all that."
Automated quality checks
Robots are programmed to look for common issues, such as missing material. This entails teaching the robot what a perfect part looks like and telling it to set aside any "short shots" or parts that don't match the control.
Verifying robot performance
Robots can't compete with the human mind. For extra assurance, the robots are programmed to set aside a few randomly selected parts during each 2-hour slot for staff inspection.
Automation streamlines processes, reducing cycle times, minimizing downtime, and increasing factory output. Generally speaking, one person working with five robots can do the work of about 3-4 people. Higher productivity allows manufacturers to scale according to customer demand while decreasing waste and minimizing product defects.
“Lights Out” programs
"Lights Out" refers to a robotics system that operates with little to no human intervention. Elite is testing a lights-out program that can run independently for up to four hours. This automated machine independence system performs a segment of the total production line. The robots and injection machines are programmed to communicate with each other at specific points in the process. The system has built-in product quality checks, robust error detection, and automated shutdown procedures. Test runs on the system show the machines are already speaking to one another correctly.
"There's a lot of handshaking," Schlauch explains. "That means that the robot is talking to the machine and the conveyor, and all those can work together to create four hours of runtime with no one here."
A Lights Out system does require a substantial investment. Robust acceleration of productivity without extra labor costs is the payoff.
Safety, quality, and productivity add up to cost-savings
Integrating robotics into the production line mitigates costs associated with labor, human error, planned downtime due to breaks and shift changes, and unexpected downtime caused by illness, injury, and other factors. Shorter, more predictable cycle times make injection molding processes much more efficient.
Understandably, SMEs may balk at the initial expenses required to implement or upgrade robots. But the potential ROI makes it worth the investment. Manufacturers gain a competitive edge when factories run leaner by passing savings on to their customers.
The bottom line
Ultimately, cost-cutting is meaningless unless the product is safe and effective. Unsafe parts endanger patients and cause costly device downtime. Fortunately, robotics can truly deliver outstanding medical equipment components. "It's quality. That consistent cycle is huge. That produces a much more superior part." Robotics have helped Elite Biomedical Solutions earn its reputation for exceptional biomedical equipment products.
Elite Biomedical Solutions creates high quality replacement parts for infusion pumps and telemetry systems. Contact us to learn more about how our affordable products support hospitals and health systems in delivering safe, effective care that improves patient outcomes.